Robyn Macdonald is pushing the frontiers of extremely high speed research: hypersonics.
A new assistant professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, Macdonald joins a growing group of faculty conducting research into the extreme conditions faced at Mach 5 and above.
“In hypersonic flight, the gas around an aircraft or spacecraft reaches very high temperatures which triggers chemical reactions. We need to understand and model the chemical reactions and other physics occurring such as turbulence,” Macdonald said. “There’s a big push into this type of research.”
The work is of critical importance in both the civilian space exploration and military realm. Multiple countries, including the USA, are working on hypersonic missiles as well as ways to defend against them. In addition, space capsules experience hypersonic conditions during atmospheric entry. As NASA and private space companies grow their footprints in low Earth orbit and beyond, they are seeking new technologies to protect astronauts from the harsh conditions experienced during atmospheric entry.
Macdonald’s research focuses on building a better understanding of hypersonic flight. Although space capsules dating back to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo experienced hypersonic speeds, computer technology is only just now getting to the point where we can fully understand at a fundamental level the conditions faced at those velocities and use this knowledge to inform design decisions.
Macdonald does computational work at the intersection of chemistry and fluid dynamics, leveraging fundamental physics principles to improve predictive modeling capabilities of high-speed flows.
“I enjoy this area of research because I’m interested in understanding the complex underlying physics. In research, you start a problem and never quite know where it will end up. You get to follow the physics to learn new things,” Macdonald said.
She is part of a growing group of hypersonics researchers in Smead Aerospace that includes department chair Brian Argrow and Professors Iain Boyd and Tim Minton.
Macdonald earned her doctorate in aerospace engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2019. As a graduate student, she received a prestigious National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship from the Department of Defense. After finishing her PhD, Macdonald conducted a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Minnesota. She started at CU Boulder in January.
Throughout her education, Macdonald has been drawn to research on the frontiers of fluid dynamics.
“Before grad school I knew I wanted to pursue research in fluids. Initially, I thought I wanted to work at NASA but eventually decided I wanted to have the flexibility to pursue my own research interests,” Macdonald said. “I like the freedom to pursue the things I’m interested in. At a university you have more flexibility to explore what excites you and to take on unseen new challenges.”
Just a few months into her position at CU Boulder, Macdonald is building out a research lab and recruiting students for the first time.
“I’d like prospective students to have some experience and a strong interest in research. My research is quite fundamental, so I’m open to students from aerospace engineering as well as mechanical engineering, physics, and chemistry,” she said. “It’s exciting to engage with students as they learn and grow in research. There comes a point when through discussions with students, we learn from each other, which is very rewarding.”