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Lightweight Thermal Protection System for Hypersonic Aerial Vehicles


RT&L FOCUS AREA(S): General Warfighting Requirements


The technology within this topic is restricted under the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR), 22 CFR Parts 120-130, which controls the export and import of defense-related material and services, including export of sensitive technical data, or the Export Administration Regulation (EAR), 15 CFR Parts 730-774, which controls dual use items. Offerors must disclose any proposed use of foreign nationals (FNs), their country(ies) of origin, the type of visa or work permit possessed, and the statement of work (SOW) tasks intended for accomplishment by the FN(s) in accordance with section 3.5 of the Announcement. Offerors are advised foreign nationals proposed to perform on this topic may be restricted due to the technical data under US Export Control Laws.

OBJECTIVE: Develop a lightweight, high-performance, thermal protection system for hypersonic aerial vehicles operating in hypersonic flight environments.

DESCRIPTION: Hypersonic aerial vehicles have more aerodynamic shapes with sharp leading edges to improve performance. When a vehicle is travelling through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds of Mach 5 or higher, it encounters intense friction with the surrounding air. The nose cone and the leading edges of the flight vehicle will experience extremely high temperatures up to 3000 to 5000 degrees Fahrenheit (F). The extreme temperature of the leading edge caused by the kinetic heating is inversely proportional to the square root of its radius of curvature [Ref 1]. Therefore, the more aerodynamic the shape of the vehicle, the higher the temperatures of the leading edges.

Ultra-high temperature ceramics (UHTCs) materials, such as Hafnium carbide and Tantalum carbide [Ref 2], have extremely high melting points and high resistance to oxygen-induced ablation. Additionally, active research has been performed to develop these types of ceramics materials with mechanically and thermally robust structural and coating materials for hypersonic vehicles. Besides the thermal challenges of hypersonic vehicle exteriors, the extreme heat from the high-temperature external surfaces transported to the interior of the vehicle can impact performance and reliability of the internal systems, avionics and payloads.

This SBIR topic seeks to address the vehicle’s interior high-temperature challenges by developing and creating a lightweight, high-performance, materials and cooling system to insulate the exterior high temperature from the interior of the hypersonic vehicle. Any innovative passive or active thermal protection solution will be considered as long as it will maintain the internal ambient temperature of a hypersonic aerial vehicle at no more than 110 °F and the total weight is no more than 15% of the hypersonic aerial vehicle when empty [Ref 3]. The final hypersonic aerial vehicle shape and form will be determined at the beginning of the Phase I.

PHASE I: Design, develop, and demonstrate feasibility of the proposed lightweight thermal protection system for the hypersonic aerial vehicles. Conduct analytical and experimental models of the design. Determine any technical risks of the design and provide risk mitigation strategy. The Phase I effort will include prototype plans to be developed under Phase II.

PHASE II: Fully develop and optimize the approach developed in Phase I. Validate the lightweight thermal protection system’s performance via testing in a relevant representative hypersonic environment. Demonstrate that the lightweight thermal protection system can meet the performance requirements stated in the Description in a high-fidelity simulated aerothermodynamics heating for hypersonic flight environments [Ref 4].

PHASE III DUAL USE APPLICATIONS: Finalize development, based on Phase II results, for transition and integration of the product into a hypersonic vehicle candidate airframe. Conduct flight test units for fielding on Navy experimental flight tests.

This system could be applied to any commercial air vehicle, which must fly at high supersonic-to-hypersonic speeds (space access and recoverable vehicles). In addition, any low cost, high-temperature materials capable of surviving in a high-supersonic-flight environment would have diverse application in other industries that have components exposed to high temperatures, such as automotive engines, industrial processes, aircraft engines, airliner fuselages, industrial furnaces and confined electronics. Finally, the product could also be used as a cryogenic insulation for liquid natural gas fuel storage tanks or other kinds of cryogenic liquids.


  1. Lewis, M.J. “Sharp Leading Edge Hypersonic Vehicles in the Air and Beyond.” SAE International, SAE 1999 Transactions, 108, October 19, 1999, pp. 841-851.  
  2. Cedillos-Barraza, O.; Manara, D.; Boboridis, K.; Watkins, T.; Grasso, S.; Jayaseelan, D.D.; Konings, R.J.M.; Reece, M.J. and Lee, W. E. “Investigating the highest melting temperature materials: A laser melting study of the TaC-HfC system.” Scientific Reports, 6, 37962, December 1, 2016.  
  3. “High-Speed Strike Weapon To Build On X-51 Flight" Archived January 4, 2014, at the Wayback Machine. Aviation Week, 20 May 2013.
  4. Mueschke, N. (n.d.). “Hypersonic Flight Test.” Southwest Research Institute.
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