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Panesi leads team on new NASA initiative


Debra Levey Larson

The Arc Jet Complex at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley conducts heat simulation testing on a conceptual heat shield prototype. Credits: NASA
The Arc Jet Complex at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley conducts heat simulation testing on a conceptual heat shield prototype.
Credits: NASA

Professors Marco Panesi and Francesco Panerai are part of the $16 million multi-institutional leadership team on a newly funded NASA Space and Technology Research Institute initiative named Advanced Computational Center for Entry System Simulation, or ACCESS. Panesi will lead the Kinetics and Flow Physics research team. He is the director of the Center for Hypersonics and Entry Systems Studies, a professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and has over 15 years of experience in numerical modeling of non-equilibrium hypersonics flows.

Marco Panesi
Marco Panesi

“The future of space exploration will critically depend on hypersonic capabilities that rely heavily on the availability of computationally efficient and accurate models for the description of non-equilibrium plasma flows,” Panesi said. “Deficiencies in current state-of-the-art plasma models have prevented progress in the development of the next generation space vehicles.”

Panesi explained there are a lot of complex physical and chemical processes involved in the modeling and design of entry systems. Researchers need to understand the various phenomena happening in the flow around vehicles traveling at hypersonic speeds, as well as the effectiveness of the material it is made from and how the structure of the vehicle responds.

“The primary contribution from my team of researchers is to construct accurate models for the flow physics, including gas-phase and gas-surface chemical processes, turbulence, radiation and material response modeling,” Panesi said. “The models will be developed for entry systems that are relevant to the atmospheres of Titan, Mars, and Earth, expanded by the products of material ablation.”

Francesco Panerai
Francesco Panerai

The overall project seeks to provide high-fidelity models of all physical phenomena anchored by experiments and with quantified uncertainty; significantly reduce risk margins for entry system design; streamline entry system analysis using a single, comprehensive simulation framework; accelerate entry system design through the effective use of high-performance computing platforms; explore off-nominal and extreme entry system conditions, such as ballistic entry into Earth from Mars; and educate the next generation of entry system engineers.

Additional Illinois participants include aerospace faculty member Francesco Panerai, and Harley Johnson and Kelly Stephani who are both in the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering. They are all also researchers in the Center for Hypersonics and Entry Systems Studies at UIUC.

NASA’s website states the goal of the Space Technology Research Institutes is to strengthen NASA’s ties to the academic community through long-term, sustained investment in research and technology development critical to NASA’s future. The investment from these research initiatives will also create, fortify, and nurture the talent base of highly skilled engineers, scientists, and technologists to improve America’s technological and economic competitiveness.

The director of ACCESS is Iain Boyd at the University of Colorado as well as team leader Alireza Doostan. The other team leads on the project are Graham Candler at the University of Minnesota; and Alexandre Martin, at the University of Kentucky. Also participating are researchers from the University of New Mexico.

Additional collaborators to the flow physics research from the theoretical and experimental perspectives are Matthey McGilvray from Oxford University in England, Vincenzo Laporta from Centro Nazionale Ricerche in Italy, and Mario Lino Da Silva from the Instituto Superior Tecnico of Lisbon.

NASA’s announcement was released on March 30, 2021.