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Space shuttle Columbia's during liftoff.

Space shuttle Columbia lifting off at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on January 16, 2003.

Flying safer, higher, and faster

By Deane Morrison and Pauline Oo

From eNews, September 16, 2004

Hurtling through the atmosphere on the morning of February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia was just minutes from landing when it disintegrated 39 miles over Texas. The explosion rained debris over hundreds of miles of countryside and killed all seven astronauts on board. Could the astronauts have prevented the disaster?

Perhaps, if they had had the tools to diagnose the damage to their spacecraft. According to the 250-page investigative report, the accident was technically caused by a piece of foam insulation that popped off the shuttle's external fuel tank about 81 seconds after liftoff and struck the spacecraft's left wing. The resulting hole allowed hot gases to tear the ship apart during its reentry.

Giving astronauts better damage-prevention and damage-assessment tools is one of the goals of the new National Hypersonics Research Center, based in the University of Minnesota Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics. The center was created with a one-year, $2 million grant from the U.S. Air Force.

U professor Graham Candler is leading the effort to develop equipment that can accurately predict the rate of heat transfer to the shuttle wing and to reentry spacecraft. Besides researchers from the U, the center includes experts and graduate students from the Calspan-University of Buffalo Research Center. The Air Force's Office of Scientific Research will manage the center.

Candler says his team will use mathematics to simulate the flow of air and other gases around vehicles or through vehicle engines moving at hypersonic (faster than the speed of sound) speeds; they will then test the simulations' ability to predict what actually happens at the Calspan-Buffalo wind tunnel facilities. He says the two-pronged approach develops confidence in the modeling and shows where models need to be improved. And as a result, the simulations become more reliable and can be used to design more efficient and safer spacecraft.

In addition to making spacecraft safer, the researchers are determined to create a better "scramjet" engine-a rocket engine that can fly high, fast, and on short notice. Scramjet-powered vehicles are envisioned as a means of carrying satellites aloft, minus the heavy tanks of liquid oxygen needed to burn rocket fuel. The U.S. military is interested in the technology so that it could put a satellite into orbit within hours rather than months.

NASA recently flew the scramjet-powered X-43A at Mach 7 (seven times the speed of sound), and an Australian group flew a Mach 8 scramjet rocket. Candler says his team, which includes Australian colleagues, could unveil a Mach 10 scramjet engine as early as next year.