NASA transforming, looks to further develop hypervelocity jets

NASA, facing budget changes, looks to build hypervelocity space vehicles

NASA hypervelocity research
As NASA prepares to reshape itself, one of the areas that could gain increased research and development attention is hypersonic air or spacecraft that could travel in the Earth's  atmosphere or between here and other planets. 

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NASA this week announced a $45 million contract with longtime partner ERC Inc., for just such space vehicle research.  Such hypersonic aircraft face myriad trajectory control, propulsion and heat-related issues akin to what a spacecraft would endure, experts say. 

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. 

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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 soon will test another hypersonic aircraft - the  Mach 6 capable X-51A WaveRider.   When it finally flies the X-51A flight tests are intended to demonstrate the engines can achieve their desired speed without disintegrating.  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. 

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. 

Until it was cancelled earlier this year,  DARPA was working on the Blackswift reusable hypersonic aircraft . The Blackswift was to take off on its own, climb and accelerate to a Mach 6+ cruise speed, sustain this Mach 6+ cruise speed in level flight for at least 60 seconds, and demonstrate maneuverability by executing an aileron roll and land under its own power.  

NASA too working to with Japan's Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to jointly research sonic booms - another issue with hyperspace aircraft. NASA said sonic boom modeling is one of the key technologies needed to let a next generation supersonic aircraft quiet enough that it can fly supersonically over land without significant disturbance to the people or damage to property under such noise. 

The renewed emphasis on hypervelocity vehicles is part of myriad changes taking place at NASA.  In February, NASA today moved quickly to advance its role as commercial space entrepreneur by awarding $50 million to five companies who could help design and build future spacecraft that could take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. 

As part of its $19 billion 2011 budget request, NASA asked for $6 billion over five years to spur the development of American commercial human spaceflight vehicles. As the space shuttle retires this year, NASA will have to use other means to get its astronauts to the ISS. 

NASA also recently said it would partner with the US Air Force Research Laboratory to develop a technology roadmap for use of reusable commercial spaceships. The study of reusable launch vehicles will focus on identifying technologies and assessing their potential use to accelerate the development of commercial reusable launch vehicles that have improved reliability, availability, launch turn-time, robustness and significantly lower costs than current launch systems, NASA stated.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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