WASHINGTON — Purdue University’s Applied Research Institute opened the doors to a new hypersonics facility June 6, designed in part to support the Pentagon’s high-speed vehicle research and testing efforts.
The 65,000-square-foot Hypersonics and Applied Research Facility hosts a Mach 8 quiet wind tunnel, designed to closely simulate hypersonic flight — which is reached when a vehicle hits a speed of Mach 5 or higher — and provide precise data on a system’s performance. It is also home to a hypersonic pulse shock tunnel that uses shock waves of high-temperature air to simulate various flight scenarios at speeds from Mach 5 to as high as Mach 40.
Also located within the facility is Purdue’s Hypersonics Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center, where the university collaborates with industry to improve materials and manufacturing processes and prototype fully-integrated hypersonic systems.
Mark Lewis, chief executive officer of the Purdue Applied Research Institute and a former DoD hypersonics official, told reporters June 5 that advanced testing facilities like these not only help train the future workforce, but provide the test and research capabilities needed to advance U.S. hypersonic development at a time when Russia and China are racing to compete in this area.
“I believe very much that we are in a race with peer competitors that are determined to beat us in hypersonics,” Lewis said.
Russia and China’s hypersonic advances are driving a sense of urgency within the Defense Department to field hypersonic weapons of its own and boost funding for enabling technology, including advanced materials and propulsion systems.
The Pentagon relies on wind tunnels and other testbeds to validate flight characteristics for hypersonic vehicles, but those facilities are in high demand, limiting access even for major programs. Those constraints in ground testing, according to Lewis, play a role in the flight-test failures and program delays the department has experienced over the last year.
That includes the Air Force’s Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, which logged its latest flight-test failure in March. Service officials have said they may not progress the program to the procurement phase due to its testing woes.
“Why have we been having failures like that? Because we haven’t been testing,” Lewis said. “We need to get to a rhythm where we’re testing, flight testing, constantly putting things in the air. In order to support that, we need ground test infrastructure. That gives us the information that we then roll into our flight tests.”
Purdue is part of the DoD-led University Consortium for Applied Hypersonics, a group of more than 90 colleges that partner with the department and industry to support technology development. The Pentagon’s Joint Hypersonics Transition Office solicits research and prototype projects from consortium members in a range of technology areas, including materials and structures, air-breathing propulsion and guidance and navigation.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.