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NASA And Air Force To Establish Hypersonic Science Centers

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, have released a broad agency announcement describing their intent to establish three national hypersonic science centers. Hypersonic speed is defined as Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, and faster. Sustained hypersonic flight is a national aeronautical goal.

NASA’s Fundamental Aeronautics Program and the Air Force Office of Science Research 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. The jointly funded program will support university-level basic science or engineering research that provides improved understanding of hypersonic flight.

We have identified three critical research areas: air-breathing propulsion, materials and structures, and boundary layer control. These three areas are the biggest hurdles to successful hypersonic flight and low-cost space access using an air-breathing engine.

—James Pittman, principal NASA investigator for Fundamental Aeronautics Program’s Hypersonics Project

Research topics within each of the areas include:

  1. Hypersonic Air-Breathing Propulsion. Research topics and associated supporting technologies are (1) characterization of the governing mechanisms with emphasis on turbulence-chemistry interactions, including chemical reactions, as well as novel experimental methods to acquire relevant data and innovative concepts for fuel-air mixing, ignition, and flame holding (via nonequilibrium plasma or other concepts); (2) formulation of novel simulation methods specifically addressing, but not limited to, large eddy simulations (LES) and LES-RANS hybrid models with high-order accuracy in the presence of shock-waves and associated sub-grid-scale closure models for compressible, turbulent combustion valid for both far-field and near-wall applications; and (3) novel concepts addressing combined-cycle-engine net-propulsive performance improvements, and/or dynamic mode-transition control methods.

  2. Hypersonic Materials and Structures. The following focus areas have been identified for materials and structures: (1) Development of experimental and computational tools to accurately predict the properties, and ultimately model the performance and failure, of materials and structures in extreme and coupled thermal-mechanical-vibratory environments. (2) Discovery and characterization of new classes of thermal and oxidation resistant high-temperature materials including, but not limited to, complex hybrid engineered structures, composites, or thin films for repeated or sustained use at temperatures exceeding 1,400°C. (3) Development of processing science necessary to realize damage tolerant, complex shaped materials with improved oxidation,reduced defects and near net geometry.

  3. Hypersonic Laminar-Turbulent Transition. The control of the transition process from laminar to turbulent flow has the potential to be one of the most significant air vehicle design breakthroughs in decades.

    The National Hypersonic Science Center in Hypersonic Laminar-Turbulent Transition will develop and validate physics-based transition estimation methods for nonequilibrium flows over representative vehicle surfaces and develop strategies for control of the transition process. Research areas may include, but are not limited to the following:

    • Development of a theoretical basis for identification of instability mode competition and mode interaction leading to well defined physics-based numerical tools for the design environment;

    • Experimental characterization of mode interactions and competition in transitional flows. Investigation of receptivity processes, instability growth, and both passive and active control approaches;

    • Assessment of the influence of surface roughness, as-built surface finishes, and degraded surface materials on the transition process and physics-based estimation methods;

    • Assessment of the influence of nonequilibrium thermodynamics, surface chemistry and catalysis, and ablation product blowing on the transition process; and

    • Development of strategies and methods for control of the transition process.



Alex Kovnat

What I'm curious to know is: Why is sustained hypersonic flight (i.e., = or > Mach 5) a national aeronautical goal? Consider the following:

1. Our only operational Mach 3 aircraft, the SR-71, is no longer flying.
2. The world's only ~Mach 2 commercial airliner, the Concorde, is likewise no longer in service.

So it would seem to me, we should put greater priority on developing a new generation of Mach 3@80,000 ft. altitude, long-range reconnaissance aircraft to supplement our reconnaissance satellites. For commercial air service, I hope to see before I'm 90, an aircraft that can carry 300 passengers and fly non-stop from San Francisco or LA to Australia at speeds no less than 1100 knots.

richard schumacher

In a rational world sustained hypersonic flight would not be a goal; in this world it's been a wet dream of flyboys and a money pipeline to aerospace companies for forty years. Suborbital is faster, cheaper, and easier. We could tomorrow start building rocket powered vehicles that carry passengers and freight between Los Angeles and Australia with a travel time of about 45 minutes. (The talk of using hypersonic craft as lower-cost boosters to orbit is a nonsensical smokescreen. To minimize costs a booster needs to accelerate through the hypersonic regime as quickly as possible, not loiter there.)


We will never put a man on the Moon, either.

Stupid... big... money grubbing... aerospace ... companies.


Surely evacuated tube transport must be better than this? Low energy travel and > 10,000 mph attainable.


Seriously, don't we have bigger fish to fry than hypersonic flight? How about making a better solar panel?

Never heard of that one. Very cool, though, as it would totally do away with the air resistance problem. Add magnetic levitation and you have friction free travel.


Wet dreams or solar panels?
decision decisions - I'll get back to you!

Roger Pham

Why sustained Hypersonic flight?
By accelerating as much fast as possible while still in the atmosphere using air-breathing SRAMjet engine, future STO (Single-Stage-to-Orbit) spacecraft (reusable) will need to carry very little liquid Oxygen for use when reached space only, and hence will be much smaller and cheaper.

Current space launch vehicle carry but 1% of launch weight as payload, making space launch very expensive in multiple-staged throw-way vehicles. The goal is being able to re-use the entire space craft in a single stage to orbit, carrying mostly liquid H2 (LH2), which is very light, in comparison to LO2 which is 16 times heavier, that current space rockets must carry in enormous amount.

Still, single-stage to orbit will still be a long shot, since it takes an enormous amount of energy to reach orbiting velocity of 17,000 mph, and E=1/2MV^2. More feasible would be having at least two reusable stage, one subsonic using jet airplane like the A308 or B747 for the first stage, and the hypersonic SCRAMjet for the second stage, or even more likely still, two hypersonic stages, all reusable.
Space is the final frontier, so it pays to find ways to reach there the cheapest!

richard schumacher

Roger, every time rockets versus ramjets has been studied, rockets are cheaper both to build and to operate. It is extraordinarily difficult to take incoming air at Mach 5 and add enough energy to it while it is inside an engine to get any net thrust from it. (Looking at it another way: screaming along at Mach 6 and 60,000 feet altitude with the wings glowing yellow-hot, a vehicle has about 6% of the energy required for orbit. Big whoop.) At the same time, liquid oxygen is cheaper than bottled water. Hypersonic boosters are a ten billion dollar solution to a ten million dollar problem.

Aerospace companies are not inherently evil, they just do whatever they are paid to do. We should stop paying them to pursue endless development programs and start paying them to do useful things, such as building lower-cost access to space.

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