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SwRI, UTSA to study hypersonic separation events with $1.5 million grant

November 8, 2021 — Southwest Research Institute will advance hypersonics research in collaboration with The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) under a three-year, $1.5 million grant through the University Consortium of Applied Hypersonics. As a subcontractor to UTSA, SwRI will design experiments to push the envelope on what is capable with hypersonic system designs and provide methods to better model complex system behavior during separation events.

Hypersonic speeds are faster than five times the speed of sound or greater than Mach 5. When something is flying that fast, the air around a flying object will chemically decompose. Some points behind the shockwave created by the vehicle are hotter than the surface of the Sun. This strange chemical environment causes whatever is traveling through it to heat up, and even melt and chemically react with the air.

SwRI engineers, led by Nicholas Mueschke, program manager of SwRI’s Computational Mechanics Section, are studying hypersonic separation events, when two or more things intentionally come apart.

Separation events are commonplace in many aerospace applications. For example, rocket boosters are ejected during space launches, including some that now return back to the launch pad after separation. Military aircraft require safe separation of payloads carried underwing or within storage bays.  Some rocket nose cones are designed to protect launch packages, such as satellites, which split open and separate from the vehicle inflight.

“Flying at hypersonic speeds within the atmosphere makes the aerodynamics and loads experienced by separating structures more difficult to predict and harder to safely design around, because the time-scales of these events are squeezed into milliseconds,” Mueschke said.

As next-generation hypersonic technology progresses, the ability to support separating components must also advance. A booster that separates from a vehicle, for example, allows for extended range and novel flight corridors. The challenge is designing components that can separate easily, avoid damaging or upsetting the primary vehicle, but also withstand the extreme aerodynamics and thermal environment associated with traveling at hypersonic speeds.

SwRI is designing novel experiments to evaluate hypersonic system designs while also providing methods to better model complex system behavior during separation events. To accomplish this, the team is designing tests that can be conducted in the Institute’s two-stage light-gas gun, which simulates hypersonic flight conditions and allows researchers to image objects in hypersonic flight.

“The goal is to generate aerodynamic and kinematic data that will anchor high-fidelity simulation models,” Mueschke said. “We will also leverage some of our advanced simulation capabilities to both design these experiments and evaluate how simulation models can improve future vehicle designs. Ultimately, this work is part of the broader effort to leverage hypersonic technology to deliver operational capability and options to combatant commanders that otherwise don’t exist today.”

Mueschke and his colleagues began work under the new contract in October.

“It’s encouraging to see academia, government and industry collaborating on multiyear efforts to advance hypersonics research,” Mueschke said. “I hope this effort will open new doors to operational capabilities we haven’t seen before.”

The University Consortium for Applied Hypersonics is an inclusive, collaborative network of universities working with government, industry, national laboratories, federally funded research centers and existing university-affiliated research centers. It aims to deliver the innovation and workforce needed to advance modern hypersonic flight systems in support of national defense.

For more information, visit Hypersonics Research or contact Joanna Carver, +1 210 522 2073, Communications Department, Southwest Research Institute, 6220 Culebra Road, San Antonio, TX 78238-5166.