U.Va. leads Pentagon hypersonic project
Like a “Top Gun” fighter pilot, Christopher Goyne feels the need for speed.
Goyne directs the University of Virginia’s Aerospace Research Laboratory and leads a new team developing hypersonic engines that will enable more maneuverable missiles, jets and — eventually — spacecraft via a $4.5 million Department of Defense award announced in October.
Under the three-year effort, U.Va. will spearhead work with Virginia Tech, the University of Minnesota, North Carolina State University and several industry partners, including Arlington-based Boeing Co., to develop components for a supersonic combustion ramjet, or scramjet, an air-breathing jet engine that will function through extreme turns at speeds above Mach 5. The work includes engine design, maneuverability control and operational resiliency and will culminate in wind tunnel tests at U.Va. and NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton.
“They’re a very simple engine by concept, but difficult to practically implement because of the very high temperatures and high speeds involved in operating these engines,” Goyne says. Air coming into the engine at Mach 5 can reach 1,700 degrees, which would destroy a commercial jet engine.
The project comes at a crucial time as the Pentagon races to catch up with adversaries like China and Russia, which have developed and tested hypersonic missiles.
Goyne says the award builds on 35 years of hypersonic research at U.Va. and relies on the university’s wind tunnel, one of the few in the world that can conduct extended tests in hypersonic conditions. The university has previously worked on projects with the Air Force, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and NASA, which in 2019 named U.Va. one of three national hypersonic science centers.
“U.Va. has extensive experience over many years doing scramjet engine ground testing and advanced measurement diagnostics development,” says Kevin Bowcutt, chief scientist of hypersonics at Boeing.
The award was made through the University Consortium for Applied Hypersonics, a network of universities, government agencies and industries developing hypersonic technology for national defense. It also aims to attract students to hypersonics research.
Nicholas Gushue, a graduate research assistant on the team, says U.Va.’s reputation in the field drew him to the university. “They … continue to get some really exciting projects,” he says. “They’ve graduated a lot of influential people from here.”
“We have an important contribution that we can make to … national security,” Goyne says. “That’s a responsibility that we all feel as well.”