Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering
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Computational Hypersonics Research Lab

Directors: G. Candler

Location: 230 Akerman Hall

Computational Hypersonics Lab

The National Hypersonics Research Center was started in 2004 and was active until September 2011. Its research goals included giving astronauts the tools to diagnose damage to their spacecraft in flight and designing more efficient hypersonic engines. The center, based in the University of Minnesota Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics, was a partnership between the department and the Calspan-University of Buffalo Research Center (CUBRC) in Buffalo, N.Y. The center was funded by the U.S. Air Force through September 2005 with an initial grant of $2 million. Research continues in computational hypersonics as part of the Computational Hypersonics Research Lab.

The research combines the talents of the University of Minnesota's Graham Candler, an expert in computer simulations of the flows of air or other gases around vehicles or through vehicle engines moving at hypersonic speeds, and Michael Holden at CUBRC, who uses CUBRC's state-of-the-art wind tunnel facilities to produce air speeds up to Mach 18 (18 times the speed of sound) and test Candler's simulations under flight conditions. Candler and Holden work with colleagues and graduate students at both institutions.

One goal of the research is to help prevent tragedies like the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, which sustained damage to the leading edge of its left wing during launch. The damage led to catastrophe when the shuttle, traveling at Mach 22, encountered fierce heat generated during re-entry through the atmosphere.

Researchers are developing tools to accurately predict the rate of heat transfer to the shuttle wing and to other future re-entry spacecraft. Researchers use mathematics to simulate the process, and experiments in the CUBRC wind tunnels test the simulations' ability to predict what actually happens. This two-pronged approach develops confidence in the modeling and shows where models need to be improved. As a result, simulations become more reliable and can be used to design more efficient and safer spacecraft, Candler said.

A second goal is to design a supersonic engine-called a scramjet engine-that can fly high, fast, and on short notice. Scramjet-powered vehicles are envisioned as a means of carrying satellites aloft. The U.S. military is interested in the technology because it could put a satellite into orbit within hours rather than months.

The scramjet is intended to eliminate the need for rockets to carry heavy tanks of liquid oxygen, which is used to burn rocket fuel. The scramjet engine uses a carefully designed inlet to compress the air in the atmosphere and then burn hydrogen to produce thrust. This eliminates the need to carry oxygen, resulting in a much more efficient propulsion system. NASA recently flew the scramjet-powered X-43A at Mach 7, and an Australian group flew a Mach 8 scramjet rocket. Scientists at the Computational Hypersonics Research Lab, along with American and Australian colleagues, are designing an improved engine to fly a Mach 10 scramjet.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota and CUBRC have been collaborating for about seven years, during which time they have significantly improved methods of simulating and testing hypersonic phenomena. Candler supplied the computational methods used to design the heat shield for the re-entry of the Stardust spacecraft, which returned to Earth in 2006 with a sample of comet dust. He also helped design several spacecraft for entry into the Martian atmosphere, including the heat shield for the Mars Pathfinder rover. Researchers work closely with aerospace companies, including Twin Cities-based Aero Systems Engineering.

Computational Hypersonics Lab

Last Modified: 2015-06-02 at 09:54:42 -- this is in International Standard Date and Time Notation