Air Force seeks protection from scorching heat of hypersonic flight

Air Force: As hypersonic aircraft and other high-speed systems develop, advanced thermal protection needed.

Future hypersonic vehicles will require a broad spectrum of materials and technology to provide the protection from the searing temperatures of high-speed flight. 

Vehicles flying at hypersonic velocities in or through the atmosphere will generate extreme heat, somewhere in the vicinity of 1,800 to over 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit  and innovative materials and processing will be required to protect the internal systems from the extreme thermal environment, the Air Force stated.  

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The Next Generation Thermal Protection System (TPS) project looks to develop all manner of advanced thermal protection technology from ceramics to hybrid materials that, when combined with vehicle designs, will enable efficient, supersonic and hypersonic systems, the Air Force stated.   

Advanced materials and concepts which are highly durable, highly capable, highly supportable/maintainable, structurally efficient, extremely lightweight, and affordable are sought, the Air Force said. 

Heat protection is a critical technology as aircraft or spaceships enter and reenter the atmosphere.  NASA last year selected a fiberglass, silica, epoxy combination known as Avcoat for some future spacecraft development. The heat protection technology was used on the current space shuttle missions as well as the Apollo spacecrafts, NASA said.

 NASA defines the Avcoat ablator system as having "silica fibers with an epoxy-novalic resin filled in a fiberglass-phenolic honeycomb" and is manufactured directly onto the heat shield which is then attached to the crew module during spacecraft assembly. 

On the blistering return through Earth's atmosphere, the module will encounter temperatures as high as 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Heating rates may be up to five times more extreme than rates for missions returning from the International Space Station, NASA said. 

The Air Force and NASA last year said they would work on developing a technology roadmap for use of reusable commercial spaceships. Within those vehicles, NASA and the Air Force will evaluate all manner of flight systems from space entry, descent and recovery systems to avionics, communications and flight control.  Such systems would need advanced thermal protection. 

The Air Force is also testing aircraft such as the X-51A WaveRider that can travel at speeds up to Mach 6.  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 now, its applications could change the way aircraft or spaceships are designed,  fly into space, support reconnaissance missions and handle long-distance flight operations. 

More recently the Air Force said it would launch a program that would bring it reusable rockets that could carry military payloads into space and return to Earth. 

Known as the Reusable Booster System Pathfinder, the spacecraft would consist of an autonomous, reusable, rocket-powered first stage with an expendable upper stage.  The reusable first stage would launch vertically and carry the expendable ship to a particular point in orbit. The reusable portion would return to the launch base, landing aircraft-style on a runway, the Air Force stated.  

NASA is also looking into developing hypersonic air or spacecraft that could travel in the Earth's atmosphere or between here and other planets. The space agency recently announced a $45 million contract with longtime partner ERC Inc., for just such space vehicle research.  

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.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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