APRIL 4, 2022 — Part of what makes the UTSA Hypersonics Lab unique is the 50-foot-long, 7,000-pound Mach 7 Ludwieg Tube Wind Tunnel it houses. What makes it especially unique, however, are the students who are running the facility and are gaining invaluable experiential learning opportunities in the process.
Students’ capability to take control while in the lab is part of the UTSA Classroom to Career initiative. The breadth of experience they encounter during their time spent in the high-speed test environment is key to preparing them for the workforce. Some days students are an aerodynamicist, while other days are spent changing the oil on a compressor. Students go from exercising their plumbing skills to writing code all while trying their hand at photography and videography.
They also gain valuable experience working directly with the Mach 7 wind tunnel, which could attract more students to pursue degrees in aerospace engineering, which are in strong demand to support the growing industry in San Antonio and the nation.
The students conduct a variety of tests under Mach 7 conditions—equivalent to traveling over 5,000 miles per hour at sea level.
Among the issues the students research is the hypersonic impact on aerospace-related items such as rockets, missiles, high-speed aircraft, high-speed engine inlets, propulsion systems and more. Students also measure the extreme conditions that sections of a spacecraft experience as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
“There’s a lot of exciting technology on the horizon that our students have the opportunity to impact,” said Chris Combs, Dee Howard Endowed Assistant Professor in Aerodynamics in the UTSA Department of Mechanical Engineering. “Though we do sometimes get lucky and get our hands on an applied problem or we come up with a solution that makes an instant impact, the biggest long term and immediate impact that I think we make is in the students.”
While the lab falls under the direction of Combs, he places ownership in students’ hands. They immerse themselves in the entire process of the Mach 7 Wind Tunnel, stemming from the initial design to its construction. Combs’ students are highly involved in setting up and executing experiments.
According to Combs, the wind tunnel is only available at a select number of American universities, in addition to the few in operation at the Department of Defense, NASA and national laboratory facilities. This set up means that Combs’ students are gaining experience in a very refined part of the aerospace industry.
“They’re one of a handful of people in the country who know how to do hypersonic wind tunnel ground testing. That’s a remarkable thing. They come out of here with their UTSA degrees and a very rare skillset that makes them highly marketable in a field where we know hypersonic workforce is a challenge and it’s a problem,” Combs said. “So, we’re working hard to get these students trained in these advanced testing techniques so they can go out there and make a difference.”
The first of the lab’s doctoral students will be graduating in the coming year. Previous students who’ve passed through the UTSA Hypersonics Lab have taken their experiences to jobs with CPS Energy, Southwest Research Institute, The Aerospace Corporation and the space sectors in Houston and Fort Worth.
“This is all coming together at a very exciting time for the country and for the world because you see everything happening with commercial space, for example with SpaceX and Blue Origin. Everything going into space has to deal with hypersonic problems, so they need people with this type of expertise,” Combs added. “What I envision for this lab is this pipeline of hypersonic workforce that’s going out into the world and making a difference once they leave UTSA. We’re producing some really great people with a unique skillset that’s in high demand.”
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