UTA testing hypersonic materials in arc-jet wind tunnel

Researchers join project that will compare methods for testing hypersonic materials

Tuesday, Apr 02, 2024 • Brian Lopez : contact

Hypersonic wind tunnel

Aerospace engineers at The University of Texas at Arlington are teaming with researchers from the University of Arizona and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to understand how to best reproduce flight-relevant hypersonic conditions.

Luca Maddalena headshot

Luca Maddalena, professor of aerospace engineering and director of UTA’s Aerodynamics Research Center (ARC), and Vijay Gopal, assistant professor of aerospace engineering, will receive $700,000 of the total $2.1 million grant from the Office of Naval Research to perform tests in the University’s arc-jet wind tunnel. 

The University of Arizona, which is the lead institution on the grant, has developed advanced thermal protection materials (TPS) for use on hypersonic vehicles that the three universities will test using different methodologies:

  • The UTA team will test the materials with an arc jet, in which gases are heated to extremely hot temperatures and expanded to produce supersonic/hypersonic speeds by a continuous electrical arc between electrodes. This process can create gas temperatures exceeding the surface temperature of the sun, around 10,000 degrees Kelvin. Arc-jet testing is required to test the materials at levels necessary for certification for use in hypersonic vehicles.
  • The Arizona scientists will use an oxy-acetylene torch, which is similar to a welding torch and is a technique widely used for screening materials at the early development stage.
  • The Illinois team will test the TPS materials with a plasmatron, which concentrates microwave energy to a specific point.

At each level of testing, the team will look for trends, similarities and differences that could signal if a material’s performance is promising, consistent and suitable for use at hypersonic speeds.

Vijay Gopal headshot

“The Navy really wants us to help understand the TPS materials’ response, trends and differences among the various testing methods that are progressively used throughout the development of new TPS materials, starting from the early screening stage up to the arc-jet testing and qualification,” Maddalena said. “This knowledge will contribute to faster development of new critical materials for hypersonic applications anchoring various levels of ground testing to relevant hypersonic flight.”

UTA possesses the only university-operated, large-scale, arc-heated wind tunnel in the country capable of simulating high-impact pressures and high shear. Arc-heated wind tunnel facilities provide the only ground-based means of simulating hypersonic heating rates during entry, re-entry and hypersonic cruise in a reacting flow environment under flight-relevant durations.

“The future of aerospace is in hypersonics, and through this collaboration, Dr. Maddalena and the ARC are once again using our unique facilities to contribute to the development of materials that can withstand the extreme conditions of hypersonic flight and atmospheric re-entry to ensure the safety and reliability of hypersonic vehicles,” said Erian Armanios, professor and chair of UTA’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department.

- Written by Jeremy Agor, College of Engineering