NASA wants more hypersonic spaceship research

NASA looks to develop Mach 20 spacecraft

NASA today said it was looking for more research and development of hypersonic spacecraft that could travel at incredible speeds - in the neighborhood of Mach 20 -- in space and land on other planets.

Specifically, NASA issued a call for research on what it called "air-breathing access to space and entry, descent and landing of high-mass vehicles in planetary atmospheres."

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The research falls under NASA's Hypersonics Project and according to NASA:

 "It is envisioned that airbreathing propulsion will dramatically increase the reliability and safety of future launch vehicles and ultimately lower the cost of delivering payloads to orbit. The design of these reusable airbreathing hypersonic vehicles is challenging in several critical technology areas. The severe heating environment encountered during hypersonic flight dictates the shape of the vehicle. The development of hypersonic-unique air breathing propulsion systems that operate efficiently and effectively from Mach 0 to 20, and the efficient integration of the airbreathing propulsion system with the airframe are critical to both integrated vehicle performance and controllability. Since these vehicles fly from the Earth's surface at low speeds and enter space and re-enter the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds, the vehicle performance, controllability, and energy management across the entire Mach range is another significant challenge requiring rapid and accurate computational tools for vehicle design...Further research is required to integrate these discipline tools in a multi-disciplinary design environment."

NASA stated that the Hypersonics Project also has a goal of developing and maturing fundamental technologies required to build future planetary atmospheric Entry, Descent and Landing systems that will enable large science missions and human exploration of Mars. In addition, the Project is interested in those technologies that are crosscutting and may be applicable to a range of other decent and landing systems (including non-Martian planetary entry and Earth return) as well.

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NASA earlier this year announced a $45 million contract with longtime partner ERC Inc., to research hypersonic space vehicle research.  According to NASA's Ames Research Center which has a hypervelocity research facility and  has built and flown prototype hypervelocity vehicles in the past, ERC will help the space agency: 

- Understand the chemistry and physics of hypersonic, reacting and radiating flows;

- Analyze the aerothermodynamics of entry systems, aeronautics and space vehicle trajectories;

- Developing, modifying and applying computational fluid dynamics tools and quantum computing capabilities;

- Engineer ablative, reusable and multi-functional thermal protection materials and conducting materials science research;

- Plan, execute and analyze experiments and testing the thermodynamics of materials. 

NASA has other ongoing hypersonic research as well.  For example, the space agency is working with the Air Force to develop aircraft that can fly at over five-times the speed of sound or faster. When NASA and the Air Force announced their work they said hypersonic aerodynamics research is critical to the Air Force's interest in long-range and space operations. 

The Air Force has successfully tested its hypersonic aircraft - the  Mach 6 capable X-51A WaveRider.   While the X-51 looks like a large rocket, its applications could change the way aircraft or spaceships are designed,  fly into space, support reconnaissance missions and handle long-distance flight operations. 

DARPA has had a long history of trying out hypersonic aircraft.  The most recent, the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2 (HTV-2) launched earlier this year but was lost soon after it took off.

NASA has built hypersonic aircraft in the past. In 2004, its X-43A research vehicle demonstrated an air-breathing engine that flew at nearly 10 times the speed of sound. Preliminary data from the scramjet-powered research vehicle show its revolutionary engine worked successfully at nearly Mach 9.8, or 7,000 mph, as it flew at about 110,000 feet.  

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