NMSU Engineering Creates a Niche in Hypersonic Research and Education

LAS CRUCES — The U.S. Department of Defense increased its hypersonics research budget from $600 million in 2021 to $3.8 billion in 2022 and requested $4.7 billion for 2023. With the degree alone conferring a aerospace engineering degree program in New Mexico, and as a state land and space grant institution, the New Mexico State University College of Engineering is poised to have a impact on scientific advancement and workforce development in this burgeoning field of technology.

Hypersonic refers to a class of high-speed aerodynamic vehicles that can travel for extended periods at speeds greater than five times the speed of sound or Mach 5 (about 3,800 miles per hour). Commercial applications for air transport consider the Mach 5 range, while military applications must push Mach 10 and beyond.

The study of hypersonic vehicles is not new, nor new to New Mexico. The first man-made object to achieve hypersonic flight was the two-stage Bumper rocket launched from White Sands Missile Range in 1949. The rocket reached a speed of 5,150 mph, or about Mach 6.7. The vehicle, however, burned up during atmospheric re-entry.

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“We are now seeing new concepts, defined by mission scenarios for the Department of Defense, such as hypersonic glide vehicles being developed. The MoD’s intent is to work quickly to get ahead of any perceived evolving threat. The Army, Navy, and Air Force are working on a variety of independent or jointly fielded operational hypersonic systems,” said Jay I. Frankel, head of the mechanical and aerospace engineering department.

“In this field, the heating effects due to friction and shock waves introduce significant demands on the materials, structure and design of vehicles. Here, a fully integrated approach is needed,” Frankel said. “There are still many unanswered questions in hypersonic development that can seriously affect performance, durability, reliability, safety, etc. Additionally, there is an international race in weapons technologies involving rapid strike capabilities. These systems do not follow a conventional or predictable ballistic trajectory to a target. Offensive and defensive systems require scientific advancements as their requirements may be different. These vehicles must be designed in an inclusive manner that incorporates materials, mission scenario-based aerothermodynamics, guidance-navigation controls, and other attributes.

The faculty members of NMSU’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering have considerable expertise in fundamental and applied hypersonic problems. The growing department expands its experimental facilities to include a shock tunnel and a high-powered laser; add computational fluid dynamics capabilities and expertise; guidance, navigation and control; and materials. They are also developing a new class of thermal sensors for harsh environments. The faculty seeks federal funding that can fund undergraduate and graduate research assistants and provide state-of-the-art instruments and equipment for small to mid-size ground test capabilities.

“NMSU serves the nation’s engineering science and workforce development needs. Workforce development is necessary to produce a smooth handover to the next generation. The Department of Defense is expanding its ecosystem and NMSU can play an important role,” Frankel said.

The department is also adding new course offerings in hypersonics. An elective/senior hypersonics course in the spring of 2022 had about 40 students, many of whom were already in government positions. Plans are underway to add additional courses in hypersonics and offer a certificate in hypersonics for the professional development of working engineers. Hands-on hypersonic research experiences for undergraduates and new course offerings can provide entry to graduate school or impetus for students to pursue employment with an aerospace engineering company.

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“What is key to outperforming other universities working in hypersonic education is the nature and content of the courses. For example, graduate experimental labs that actually take the student through the entire process, from design to instrumentation to data collection and data reduction, can be done regularly at test facilities. small to medium in size,” Frankel said.

With close ties to Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories, which plan to hire thousands of engineers over the next five years, NMSU is extremely well positioned for workforce development for the State of New Mexico and the Southwest. Additionally, NMSU is a good place to offer conferences, workshops, short courses for continuing education that promote growth and a sense of continued commitment to the profession.

“The demand for engineers in general continues, but the best companies are looking for well-prepared and enthusiastic students who have experience with up-to-date instrumentation, facilities and a willingness to contribute and grow quickly. This requires programs, like those at NMSU, to promote a sense of community among students, staff, and faculty. This is accomplished through NMSU’s commitment to engineering as a profession. In addition to the Southwest, NMSU can and should impact the Midwest and Northeast where many aerospace companies reside,” Frankel said. “That’s our goal.”

“EYE ON RESEARCH” is provided by New Mexico State University. This week’s article was written by Linda Frescoes of NMSU’s College of Engineering. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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