MIAMI – NASA is converting its long-running hypersonic research studies steadily into development for future commercial applications. The agency has released two new contracts for high-speed production and propulsion work to Aerion Supersonic and GE Aviation, respectively.

The work with Aerion, which is designing the Mach 1.4 AS2 supersonic business jet, draws on previous joint research contracts. Aerion’s work focuses on combustion and thermal control systems for aircraft operating in lower than Mach 3-5 speed range. GE Aviation’s contract focuses on high-temperature ceramic components and turbine-based combined-cycle (TBCC). It aims to test high-Mach vehicles using an F101 engine.

NASA’s X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology. Photo: Lockheed Martin

NASA’s Hypersonic Efforts

The Aerion grant was won as part of NASA’s Hypersonic Technology Program (HTP). In particular, it reflects the agency’s ongoing pivot to commercial high-speed flight research. While fundamental US defense research aimed at enabling normal, reusable, hypersonic flight airbreathing has historically been promoted, this has changed in recent years.

As reported by Aviation Week, Lori Ozoroski, project manager of NASA commercial supersonics technology at the agency’s Langley Research Center, Virginia gave comments during AFWERX. She emphasized, “There has been some push to get into looking a little closer at commercial hypersonics.”

Ozoroski commented on the recent move, speaking at the AFWERX Vector/Supersonic Prime Ask Me Any Industry Involvement Webinar on January 22. She added that NASA’s decision to study high-speed technology commercialization came after “a year of due diligence.”

This includes analyses of feedback from the industry and “multiple studies to provide insight on the key questions for hypersonics,” she said. “Is there a market? What are the enabling technologies? What kind of performance requirements are there for vehicles in that realm? And really trying to understand that design space,” Ozoroski said in summarizing the plan.

NASA has been developing high-Mach, supersonic aircraft technology for some time now, especially through its Lockheed Martin agreement. They joined to create and fly the X-59 QueSST. This is a demonstration aircraft that will display how supersonic aircraft can fly silently as well.

The X-59 favors a so-called “low-boom” capability that prevents the development of disruptive sonic booms as it crosses the sound barrier.

Aerion-Park. Photo: Aerion

Strong Collaboration

Aerion said the partnership which is under NASA’s Space Act Deal will “evaluate the parametric suitability of propulsion and thermal management technologies. Through a joint assessment, the impact of Mach 3+ speed regimes will be explored to also establish solutions for enabling technologies in respect of integrated power generation and cabin systems.”

The firm expects to launch the assembly of the first AS2 at its new Melbourne, Florida plant in 2023. In addition, Aerion intends to use its in-house aerodynamic optimization software as part of the research. Aerion will “conduct technology assessments on future concepts and aid a transition to the faster aircraft of tomorrow.”

Tom Vice, president and CEO of Aerion, said NASA’s partnership would “significantly add to the work our company is doing on our next generation AS3 passenger jet.” Few details of the proposed follow-on to the AS2 business jet have been disclosed. Though the project is generically aiming at a concept of a larger with higher speeds and low-boom capability.

The deal with Aerion follows a similar deal announced last May between NASA and The Spaceship Company Virgin Galactic’s sister. The Spaceship’s deal involved collaboration on vehicle thermal control and propulsion system for speed under the Mach 3-5 regime. Studies on technology up to the threshold of hypersonic, dovetail with Virgin’s long-standing plans to create a high-speed transport variant of the “SS3” that follows the Mach 3 SS2 spaceplane.

Photo: Aerion

GE Powers NASA’s Aether

The five-year NASA contract with GE covers both the HTP and DARPA Hypersonic Vehicle Research Areas and supports the manufacture of high-speed materials and airbreathing engine technologies.

Specifically, the joint production of high-temperature resistant, lightweight ceramic composites will be included in the materials study. The ceramics are made of  silicon carbide/silicon carbide (Sic/Sic) and carbon/silicon carbide (C/Sic). The material used for high-speed conditions in advanced turbines is Sic/Sic. On the other hand, for hypersonic and space-access aircraft, the C/Sic is specifically intended for thermally resistant structures.

The knowledge, experience, and control system research skills of GE with the F101 pave the way for evaluating the Mach 2-plus turbine engine’s feasibility. The engine will function in a TBCC propulsion system for one of NASA’s HTP efforts, the Aether, which is a hypersonic model vehicle.

The engine for the B-1A bomber was designed by GE and subsequently used in the CFM56 turbofan core. Surprisingly, it is the only motor of its type with a 2.0.0. bypass ratio. As NASA claims, the Aether can be propelled to the point of TBCC where the ramjet can take over. The F101’s considerably broad bypass ratio bypasses all of the flow to the core as it throttles down to avoid limiting the flow temperature of the compressor and turbine.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons, NASA/The Boeing Company