Professors research propulsion technology

IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY — The aerospace engineering department is entering the second phase of its $58,000 NASA-funded project, which could make space travel more economical.

John Tannehill, professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics, is in charge of the project.

His team is looking for ways to make the scramjet engine, a type of supersonic combustion engine, perform better.

Scramjet engines use air in the earth’s atmosphere to propel vehicles, which Tannehill said makes them a very efficient form of thrust.

The problem, Tannehill said, is that at higher altitudes, there is less air to push through the engine and at supersonic speeds it is hard to keep this air burning.

Tannehill said space travel currently costs $10,000 for every pound of additional weight on board the shuttle, not including the shuttle itself.

NASA is trying to reduce the price to $1,000 per pound by using a reusable launch vehicle.

Tannehill is working with Manohari Ramesh, graduate student in aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics and Hiromasa Kato, graduate assistant in aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics, on using magneto hydrodynamics to solve the problem.

The magneto hydrodynamic form would give NASA the ability to send up a vehicle that can come back to earth, refuel and return to space, much like refueling an airplane.

Ramesh, who also worked with Tannehill on phase one of the project, said the group has already found a new, highly efficient code to compute the way air flows at supersonic speeds.

“Now we’re seeing if using magnets to alter fluid flow would make it more efficient to travel at higher speeds,” Ramesh said.

Tannehill said magneto hydrodynamics is not a new concept.

“The [magneto hydrodynamic] energy bypass system originated in Russia, and some believe that it is currently being employed in a Russian hypersonic vehicle,” he said.

Tannehill said even if NASA chooses not to use the scramjet engine, it could be put to use in other flying vehicles, such as military fighter jets.

He said NASA chose Iowa State because of the university’s long history of pioneering, teaching and research in computational fluid dynamics since the mid 1960s.

The project started May 1, 2000, and will end April 30, 2002, but Tannehill hopes to get the contract renewed for further research.

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