Hypersonic Flight Studied in UA’s Wind Tunnels

  • June 10th, 2001
Dr. Rodney Bowersox, middle, and students Daina Lee, left, and Zakaria Mahmud conduct research in a new aerophysics lab.
Dr. Rodney Bowersox, middle, and students Daina Lee, left, and Zakaria Mahmud conduct research in a new aerophysics lab.

Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier in his X-1 research plane in 1947, and today, scientists at NASA are developing and testing new propulsion systems on the Hyper-X (or X-43) research plane to propel airplanes and spacecraft to hypersonic velocities (velocities greater than five times the speed of sound).

The University of Alabama’s aerospace engineering and mechanics department, within the College of Engineering, has evolved along with the technology of flight. It now includes a new aerophysics laboratory with wind tunnels capable of simulating air speeds of up to Mach 7, or seven times the speed of sound.

In the aerophysics laboratory, under the direction of Dr. Rodney D. W. Bowersox, associate professor of aerospace engineering and mechanics, fundamental aerodynamic and aeropropulsion research is being conducted in new wind tunnels that produce subsonic through hypersonic flight conditions. The new laboratory utilizes numerous advanced non-intrusive measurement techniques including laser sheet particle image velocimetry and pressure/temperature sensitive paints to provide detailed information about the flow fields. In addition, numerical simulations of the flow fields are accomplished using modern computational fluid dynamics codes.

“Our research is unique and of international relevance,” said Bowersox. “Only a handful of other institutions have wind tunnels capable of these speeds.” Being on the forefront of this research, UA’s wind tunnel studies have garnered interest from several agencies, including the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Army Research Office, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Boeing Company, all of which have recently sponsored research or provided equipment for the laboratory.

Bowersox’s team of graduate and undergraduate students is using the facilities to provide new insights and engineering data to develop and validate mathematical models for numerical simulation of the flow fields associated with high-speed flight vehicles. For example, research is currently being performed, under sponsorship of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, to aid in developing the reaction control systems for future hypersonic vehicles. The Army Research Office is also sponsoring wind tunnel research that is contributing to the anti-ballistic missile defense system under development by the Department of Defense.

The aerophysics laboratory is continuously being updated and expanded; this year, a hypersonic wind tunnel control room has been established from which researchers can guide the experiments at a safe distance from the equipment and resultant heat. The study of the effects of highspeed air velocities on propulsion elements, and their impact on directional control, is an area of research that will continue to be important for many years to come, said Bowersox. “The work continues to be exciting and relevant, and the need for and interest in wind tunnel research will grow along with aircraft and spacecraft technology,” he added.


Bill Gerdes, UA Media Relations, 205/348-8318, bgerdes@cba.ua.edu

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