NASA/US Air Force team to develop aircraft that really scream

NASA and the Air Force today said they would be offering up to $35 million to help fund research that could ultimately develop aircraft that can fly at over five-times the speed of sound or faster. Such hypersonic aircraft face myriad trajectory control, propulsion and heat-related issues akin to what a spacecraft would endure, experts say.

The joint announcement said: "Hypersonic aerodynamics research is critical to the Air Force's interest in long-range and space operations. The size and weight of a hypersonic vehicle, and thus its flight trajectory and required propulsion system, are largely determined by aerothermodynamic considerations. Research areas of interest emphasize the characterization, prediction and control of high-speed fluid dynamic phenomena including boundary layer transition, shock/boundary layer, and shock/shock interactions, and other phenomena associated with airframe-propulsion integration. High-temperature gas kinetics, aerothermodynamics and interactions between the hypersonic flow and thermal protection system materials are of particular interest."

Specifically, NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate in Washington and the Air Force Research Laboratory's Office of Science Research at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, said they would establish three national hypersonic science centers. NASA and the Air Force said they plan to set aside as much as $30 million to fund the centers over five years. The maximum grant will be approximately $2 million a year, NASA said.

"We have identified three critical research areas: air-breathing propulsion, materials and structures, and boundary layer control," said James Pittman, principal investigator for NASA's Fundamental Aeronautics Program's Hypersonics Project at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., in a release. "These three areas are the biggest hurdles to successful hypersonic flight and low-cost space access using an air-breathing engine."

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.

NASA is currently 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.

Hypersonic flight is arguably the next great flight frontier and others obviously are interested in it. In March DARPA opened competition for contract valued at $750 million for a hypersonic aircraft known as Blackswift that would consist of a powered take-off, climb and acceleration 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 power. It is envisioned that flying this reusable hypersonic testbed in a relevant, flight environment will permit the future development of enhanced-capability reusable hypersonic cruise vehicles for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, strike or other national need missions, DARPA said.

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