UVa Research Developing Jet Engine for Space Travel

Dec. 29--The future of space travel is flowing through a pipe at the University of Virginia at an estimated 3,806 miles an hour.

Students and faculty at UVa's Aerospace and Research Laboratory are using the facility's wind tunnel to ram air into a jet engine at Mach 5 -- five times the speed of sound -- as part of a research project into the next generation of NASA space shuttles. They will cap their efforts in 2009 with a rocket launch, 30 seconds of engine burn and a splash down followed by long periods of data analysis.

The project is called Hy-V, pronounced "high-five," and will test the operation of a scramjet engine, a jet engine that uses supersonic air compression, some fuel and a spark to create speeds up to Mach 10 without the need for an external fuel tank. Air is rammed into the jet engine at high speeds, causing heat and pressure. With an ignition source and common jet fuel, the air can be ignited to increase thrust.

"Unlike current jet engines, you don't need a lot of mechanical components and unlike rocket engines, you don't need to carry oxygen in an onboard tank," explained Christopher Goyne, the research laboratory's director. "If you took a scramjet-powered aircraft from here to Los Angeles, you could do a five-hour trip in about 40 minutes."

You could also take a space shuttle into orbit without the large fuel tank that helped doom two shuttle flights. The tank was a primary cause of the explosion that destroyed Challenger in 1986, when an o-ring gave way and fuel ignited. Foam from the tank rocketed loose during lift-off and damaged heat-shielding tiles on Columbia, leading the shuttle to break up over Texas in 2003.

"The object is to get the scramjet up to speed, say Mach 5, by using a conventional rocket engine," Goyne said. "At that speed, the scramjet could operate until the air gets too thin for combustion."

The engine could be reignited if necessary, when the shuttle returns.

"That would allow the shuttle to fly under power to an alternative landing site, if necessary," he noted.

It may be rocket science, but scramjet technology is not new. The concept has been around since the 1950s. Scientific and technological advances, however, are making scramjet more appealing and NASA is taking the idea seriously. In fact, the agency recently flew Hyper X, a scramjet-powered aircraft that reached speeds of Mach 9.6.

NASA is also a major backer of the Hy-V experiment, offering a two-stage rocket to lift it to Mach 5 from the NASA Wallops Space Facility in Virginia in 2009.

Much of the design is being done with computers and wind tunnels such as the one housed at the UVa lab. Unlike other tunnels, however, UVa's design allows long periods of testing to provide readings that are more accurate, Goyne said. That's one reason why UVa was chosen to help lead the research along with students and faculty at Virginia Tech, Hampton University, the College of William & Mary and Old Dominion University.

"We've done a lot of research on scramjets in our wind tunnel because we can run our tunnel for an indefinite period of time to gather data for study," Goyne said.

But anything can work on a computer or in a lab. To see if it can fly, the Hy-V needs to be put into the air.

"No matter how much research you do, when you put something out into the real world, the results are going to be different," he said. "And that's where we need to put [Hy-V]."

UVa and other students began working on the project last spring, with students designing the experiment in conjunction with NASA and private industry engineers.

"The students get to work on a real-world project side by side with professionals and that's experience that is invaluable. They're involved in all the aspects, from launch and testing to recovery. They have to design the experiment, including how to slow down the object so it can be recovered in the ocean," Goyne said.

"Most of the students involved in the program will be able to see it through and we hope to include those who graduate before the launch," Goyne said. "Three years for a five-minute flight might seem like a long time, but in research it really isn't."

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