New Facility Aims to Propel U.S. Hypersonics Research

By Laura Heckmann

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The United States is in a hypersonic arms race, and the key to victory doesn’t lie with one technology, but rather paying the bills, experts said.

“If you assess the technologies and where we are, there are no technology showstoppers,” said Mark Lewis, chief executive officer of the Purdue Applied Research Institute, at a media event in June. “What I think is one of the biggest challenges that we’re really focused on is affordability.”

Purdue’s Applied Research Institute is hoping to contribute to lower costs in a big way. It recently opened the Hypersonics and Applied Research Facility, a $41 million, 65,000-square-foot building dedicated to enhancing capabilities in hypersonics evaluation and testing.

The facility includes two wind tunnels: the only Mach 8 quiet wind tunnel in the world, and a hypersonic pulse reflected shock/expansion tunnel. Quiet wind tunnels more closely simulate flight and provide more accurate data than conventional hypersonic wind tunnels, officials said.

Shock tunnels start with a reservoir of air at high pressure and high temperature. A shock wave is used to shoot the air through a nozzle at high speeds, reaching temperatures as high as 8,000 degrees Kelvin and allowing tests ranging from a thousandth of a second to the longest, a hundredth of a second.

The facility is an investment not only in test and evaluation, but also research capabilities that the country “desperately needs,” Lewis said.

At the end of the day, the goal is to enable hypersonic flight — having the materials, the facilities to test and understand the technology that will roll into capability and “the best and brightest” workforce, he said.

Dan Goldin, founder of innovation advisory company Cold Canyon and former NASA administrator, said touring the new facility felt like “the 1960s all over again.” But unlike the 1960s, the facility will have comprehensive testing capabilities, including materials, computing and reusable vehicles, he added.

“We will not only be able to build hypersonic vehicles, but we’ll do it much faster and for much less money because of the integration of all these functions I saw,” Goldin added.

Enhancing the capabilities of the new facility will be the students — and eventually workforce — that will bring the hypersonics technology to the fore. Goldin described a sense of brilliance and self-confidence among students while touring the facility.

The future looks bright for the workforce of tomorrow, but it also looks different, Goldin said.

“We are building the next workforce. But the next workforce is different than the workforce I was trained for,” Goldin said. “These young people are so far ahead of the [past] technologies with the facilities, the computational capability, the diagnostics here, that they’re ready to go out and start companies that then feed into the big companies with the innovation. This is what’s different.”

Marty Hunt, vice president of hypersonics and advanced materials at Dynetics Technical Solutions, said the nation’s prioritization of hypersonics has necessitated a growth trajectory that the facility will help meet.

“With the [new facility], that enables the future workforce to develop its knowledge base, with students working with researchers, and then over time them transitioning out to industry and bringing that knowledge base out,” Hunt said.

In addition to training and equipping the workforce, the facility will also expand and accelerate testing capabilities, Goldin added.

The facility “is expanding that ability so that not only with research, but with industry, we’re able to rapidly get results, physical results, for testing that’s being conducted,” he said.

And in a race, speed matters, said Josh Stults, senior director of advanced programs at Stratolaunch.

“And that’s not just flying high, far and fast … it’s developing those systems quickly,” Stults said. “And that only happens when you have a synergistic combination of design tools, ground test facilities, conceptual design capability and then flight test validation.”

Researchers at Purdue will be able to use high-fidelity diagnostics to get “unprecedented insight” into hypersonics flow, he said.

The Purdue facility is part of a bigger picture of bringing together academia, industry and government, Goldin said.

Lewis called investments in such facilities an indicator that “we’re serious” about building connections between academia and industry, the future workforce and students, “at all levels.” ND

Topics: Defense Department

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