UT-Austin and UT-San Antonio granted $1.5 million to research hypersonics, the future of high-speed travel

Katy Nelson, News reporter

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the November 5 flipbook. 

UT-Austin researchers are working to speed up flight transportation so travelers can fly to anywhere in the continental United States in 15 minutes. 

Earlier this month, the University Consortium for Applied Hypersonics, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station and the Joint Hypersonics Transition Office awarded a $1.5 million grant to researchers to study how hypersonics, a technology that exceeds the speed of sound by five times, can enhance airway transportation, space travel and shipping. This money is part of a larger $25.5 million grant the federal government distributed between 18 research projects to achieve the goal of traveling anywhere in the country within minutes.

“Fifteen minutes at Mach 7, you can get just about anywhere in the continental U.S.,” said Christopher Combs, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UT-San Antonio. “You can imagine the appeal of being able to go have dinner in Seattle or New York or in LA and be back in time for bed, and that flight will take less time than it takes to get across town on MoPac.”

Combs said his team is studying hypersonic separation events through simulations. Separation events are similar to when booster rockets attached to space shuttles separate during the launch process, engineering professor Noel Clemens said. Researchers could then attach boosters to air travel vehicles to increase speed.

“When they separate, now you have shockwaves that are coming off of the boosters that are interacting with the main rocket, … and that interacts with the whole flow,” Clemens said. “What we would like to do is improve the simulation tools and then those make their way to government labs, they make their way to industry and then that lets them do their designs better.”

Clemens said there is concern separation events could endanger people on the ground. He said the team is looking at programming the boosters to guide themselves to a landing location or drop into the sea.

“NASA is interested in creating spacecraft that can go to different planets, for example, to the moon and back to Earth, and in order to do that the spacecraft has to come back into an atmosphere at very high speeds,” Clemens said. “You (also) have sort of the commercialization of space, but also, you have companies that are interested in high speed flight potentially for transportation.”

Combs said the research should conclude within about three years. However, the earliest hypersonic technology could be integrated into everyday life is 10 years.

“It’s a connection that makes a lot of sense,” Combs said. “We’ve got some other stuff going on with UT. … It’s a really nice collaboration and easy interaction for us with a complementary capability.”

John Schmissuer, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Tennessee, said hypersonics has significant potential for the future of travel. 

“One day we may be able to connect the world and have better daily interactions,” Schmissuer said. “Imagine being able to take a unique vaccine from one part of the world to the other very quickly in time to have it needed. Being able to connect, and at high speeds like that, has some merits for bringing the world closer together.”