Darpa March 20 Hypersonic Glider: The Pentagon has explained why it aborted the DARPA hypersonic glider last year. Apparently, the unmanned craft’s skin started to peel off as it reached speeds of Mach 20. “The result of these findings is a profound advancement in understanding the areas we need to focus on to advance aerothermal structures for future hypersonic vehicles. Only actual flight data could have revealed this to us,” said Air Force Maj. Chris Schulz, DARPA program manager.
Based on state-of-the-art models, ground testing of high-temperature materials and understanding of thermal effects in other more well-known flight regimes, a gradual wearing away of the vehicle’s skin as it reached stress tolerance limits was expected. However, larger than anticipated portions of the vehicle’s skin peeled from the aerostructure. The resulting gaps created strong, impulsive shock waves around the vehicle as it travelled nearly 13,000 miles per hour, causing the vehicle to roll abruptly. Based on knowledge gained from the first flight in 2010 and incorporated into the second flight, the vehicle’s aerodynamic stability allowed it to right itself successfully after several shockwave-induced rolls. Eventually, however, the severity of the continued disturbances finally exceeded the vehicle’s ability to recover.
According to Schulz, “HTV-2’s first flight test corrected our models regarding aerodynamic design within this flight regime. We applied that data in flight test two, which ultimately led to stable aerodynamically controlled flight. Data collected during the second test flight revealed new knowledge about thermal-protective material properties and uncertainties for Mach 20 flight inside the atmosphere, which can now be used to adjust our assumptions based on actual flight data and modify our modeling and simulation to better characterize thermal uncertainties and determine how to assess integrated thermal systems.”
Aerodynamic assumptions and extrapolations from known flight regimes proved inadequate when preparing for HTV-2 inaugural flight test. The data from second flight revealed that extrapolating from known flight regimes and relying solely on advanced thermal modeling and ground testing could not successfully predict the harsh realities of Mach 20 atmospheric flight.
“A group of nationally-recognized experts from government and academia came together to analyze the flight data and conduct extensive additional modeling and ground testing for this review,” Schulz said. “The result of these findings is a profound advancement in understanding the areas we need to focus on to advance aerothermal structures for future hypersonic vehicles. Only actual flight data could have revealed this to us.”
Moving forward, the HTV-2 program will incorporate new knowledge gained to improve models for characterizing thermal uncertainties and heat-stress allowances for the vehicle’s outer shell. The remediation phase will involve further analysis and ground testing using flight data to validate new tools for this flight regime.