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Mach 5 or Bust

Students work on revolutionary engine

Christopher Goyne, Director of UVA’s Aerospace Research Laboratory 

Dan Addison

New York to Los Angeles in 40 minutes? A team of UVA aerospace engineering students don’t think it’s so crazy.

In the near future, they hope to fly a scramjet engine (short for Supersonic Combustion Ramjet, a high-speed jet engine) at 3,700 miles per hour. That’s five times the speed of sound—a feat that could revolutionize air transport.

Jointly headquartered at UVA and Virginia Tech, the Hy-V Project involves about 40 undergraduate and graduate students who plan to use a research rocket launched from Virginia’s Eastern Shore to fly the scramjet in July 2009. Unlike rocket engines, the scramjet gets the oxygen it needs for combustion from the atmosphere passing through the vehicle rather than in liquid form from an onboard tank. That engine configuration reduces the size and weight of the craft, which makes it safer, cheaper to operate and faster—coast-to-coast in under an hour.

Christopher Goyne, director of UVA’s Aerospace Research Laboratory and principal investigator on the project, says the program offers an unusual blend of basic research and undergraduate and graduate education in high-speed propulsion. “The key to maintaining competitiveness within the international aerospace market is a well-educated aerospace workforce,” says Goyne. “Surveys indicate that 27 percent of current aerospace workers will retire by 2008 and that 66 percent of aerospace and defense executives report a shortage of skilled workers.”

A program like this, which also involves students at several other state universities, will educate a new breed of aerospace engineers and scientists. “This is a remarkable opportunity for students, especially for undergraduates, to be involved at this level of a project,” he adds.

UVA has been involved in scramjet research on behalf of NASA in the past. The University’s scramjet wind tunnel is the only one of its kind in the world that simulates the operation of a scramjet flying at Mach 5 for an indefinite test time using uncontaminated air, Goyne says.

Wind tunnel experiments, an essential component of the overall project, will be validated by actual flight data. Students have begun to review flight experiment designs and plan to complete the chosen design early in 2008.