University of Colorado announces new hypersonics initiative

Faculty with fresh eyes could create new models

No single scientist or engineer, no matter how smart, could solve the challenges of controlled, maneuverable flight of an aircraft or returning spacecraft traveling at more than five times the speed of sound. Temperatures on the vehicles can soar past 2,000 degrees Celsius, and conventional control designs won’t work.

“It really takes an interdisciplinary approach to think about analyzing and designing a hypersonic vehicle,” said Iain Boyd, an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

And so, CU Boulder awarded a two-year grant to Boyd and 20 other faculty members to model better designs for such vehicles. The research will be carried out under a hypersonics interdisciplinary research theme, or IRT, one of three such themes announced today, the others being “AI-augmented learning” and “resilient infrastructure.” The new IRTs join several announced in 2018.

In designing a plane or spacecraft that can withstand the aerodynamic pressures and intense heat generated by speeds Mach 5 and greater, Boyd said different groups of engineers often begin by thinking about individual components, such as propulsion, and later “make compromises” in the overall vehicle design. The IRT will instead pair faculty members specializing in areas including hypersonics fluids mechanics and heat transfer with experts in optimization to create models that consider the overall performance, with the goal of finding configurations that “give you extra performance from things that today are considered inconvenient and bad,” he said.

By taking “a more holistic approach to designing these vehicles,” engineers can “extend the range of the vehicles” or “carry a heavier payload” or reap other benefits, Boyd said.

One area for improvement he sees is atmospheric entry, when surface material is typically shed, or ablated, to protect the craft from the searing heat of friction. Through computer simulations and models, the IRT could “deliberately design the trajectory to take advantage of the shape change,” he said.

After two years, CU Boulder could award more funding for the project, as it has in the past for other IRTs, or the group could apply for outside funding. In the short-term, Boyd said the research could contribute to the U.S. Department of Defense’s efforts to build and field hypersonic weapons, as well as lead to technologies for NASA’s Artemis program that seeks to return humans to the moon by 2024. But he also sees it as something that should become a permanent research area at CU Boulder.

“It’s always the role of the universities to be thinking further out,” Boyd said. “I think that if [DoD and NASA] accomplish all those goals out, it’d be really fantastic. But you still got to be asking, ‘well, what’s next?’ because other people might be asking what’s next.”

University of Colorado announces new hypersonics initiative