Earlier this month, an international team launched a successful hypersonic flight test in Australia. The Hypersonic International Research Experimentation (HIFiRE) Flight 5b was launched atop a two-stage rocket and reached its maximum speed of Mach 7.5, well above Mach 5, which defines the start of the hypersonic regime. The purpose of this particular flight test was not to test new propulsion technologies – there was no scramjet engine on this flight. Instead, researchers wanted to study aerodynamics at high Mach number, specifically the behavior of the air very close to the vehicle, its boundary layer.
The payload being tested was an elliptical cone mounted on the front of the vehicle and shown in images above. The shape of the payload is such that flow will curve around the cone rather than following straight lines. The image on the lower right contains black streamlines that show how air twists around the cone. This complex flowfield complicates the physics of the boundary layer near the cone’s surface and increases the likelihood that the boundary layer will transition from laminar flow to turbulent flow, thereby increasing heating on the payload. Ideally, the data from the test flight will let engineers test their ability to understand and predict this boundary layer transition in the future. For more on boundary layer transition and its effects at hypersonic speeds, check out my latest FYFD video. (Image credit: Australia Department of Defense, R. Kimmel et al., F. Li et al.; topic requested by Guido)