Hypersonic research paves the way for Mars exploration and space tourism | CU Boulder today

Iain Boyd has an unusual specialty: he studies the incredibly fast.

The aerospace engineer specializes in hypersonic flight, or when vehicles reach speeds of around 4,000 miles per hour or more, the kind of conditions that spacecraft face when diving into the atmosphere. from Earth or even from Mars.

At these speeds, vehicles can break down oxygen molecules in the air around them, destroying heat shields and frying electronic components. The burgeoning field of hypersonic research is looking to find new ways for airplanes and spacecraft to better navigate this bloated environment. It requires expertise in aerodynamics, the chemistry of air and other planetary atmospheres, the behavior of materials and more.

“There is somewhere between aero and space,” said Boyd, a professor who joined the Ann and HJ Smead aerospace engineering science department in 2019. “Anything that has ‘hyper’ in it. title must be complicated. “

And this is an area that is growing in importance. NASA plans to bring astronauts back from the moon using a hypersonic capsule. Countries like the United States, Russia and China are actively developing missiles capable of flying at hypersonic speeds. In the future, hypersonic fleets could regularly transport tourists to and from space.

Iain Boyd

To prepare for this new reality, CU Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences recently launched a new research initiative focused on hypersonic vehicles. The college will also introduce a new hypersonic certificate for graduate students this summer. The research relies on partnerships with NASA, the Department of Defense and the aerospace industry.

Boyd spoke to CU Boulder Today to talk about the research initiative and how hypersonic research could one day help humans colonize Mars.

We hear a lot about hypersonic flight lately. Why is that?

This summer was a milestone for the US space industry, with SpaceX taking astronauts to the International Space Station and bringing them back again. When you return from orbit and first enter Earth’s atmosphere, it occurs under highly hypersonic conditions of around 17,000 miles per hour. When we send a rover to the surface of Mars, it enters the atmosphere under hypersonic conditions.

Related to this is the rise of commercial enterprises in space. If you have space tourism that takes people into space and brings them back again, that involves hypersonics as well.

And defense plays a big role in these discussions as well, don’t they?

Where interest in hypersonics has really changed is on the national security side. A few major countries around the world have started to develop and deploy hypersonic systems. If the United States does nothing else, it must find a way to defend itself against it.

What makes studying hypersonics difficult?

These vehicles move really, really fast. As they move through air and reach these very high speeds, they heat the air by friction. It is as if you rub your hands together and they get hot.

They get so hot that the temperatures of the gases are as high as the surface of the sun, several thousand degrees. As this hot air interacts with the vehicle’s surface, it can begin to degrade or erode it, which is a process called ablation.

How do CU Boulder researchers hope to solve these problems?

We have aerodynamic experts and material experts and so on. The idea is to bring these people into the field and hopefully come up with efficient and better designs taking into account multiple phenomena at the same time.

As the technology behind hypersonics has evolved, so have our tools for studying extremely fast flight. What does this mean for researchers?

We have the tools nowadays, both in computer modeling and in experiments, to look in depth, studying processes molecule by molecule. How does an independent oxygen atom interact with a carbon heat shield? And it turns out that it is very important. In nature, everything happens one reaction at a time.

How do we use these tools here?

When you walk into your hypersonic capsule on Mars, your capsule collapses, which means you are losing matter, and that is by design. But the shape of your vehicle also changes as you move along the path.

Right now, the way NASA and the industry do things is to think only about aerodynamics and material response, but each of those things strongly affects the other. We have a NASA-funded project that is currently working to optimize the design of the hypersonic vehicle taking into account the change in shape throughout its trajectory.

What does this mean for human astronauts?

Fifty percent of all missions to Mars fail. Right now, NASA goes through this long process of designing a mission over years. They take off, they fly to Mars and they will land somewhere. But the uncertainty at this landing point is about 20 or 30 kilometers.

It would be quite difficult if there were people involved because we would have sent places for them to shelter, feed, have electricity, and if they land too far from where they are. these things, it might not go well. We must therefore be able to do better.

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