By Josh Rhoten

Principal investigator
Iain Boyd


Collaboration + support
NASA; Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences; Hypersonic Vehicles Interdisciplinary Research Theme; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; University of Minnesota Twin Cities; University of Kentucky in Lexington; University of New Mexico in Albuquerque; international collaborators from England, Italy and Portugal.

CU Boulder leads $15M NASA institute making hypersonic entry safer 

Researchers at CU Boulder are leading a new $15 million, multipartner institute with NASA over the next five years to improve entry, descent and landing technologies for exploring other planets.

The Advanced Computational Center for Entry System Simulation (ACCESS) institute was announced in March. It will focus on thermal protection systems, which shield spacecraft from the aerodynamic heating experienced during hypersonic entry into the atmosphere, in which spacecraft reach speeds up to 17,000 miles per hour. The work is critical to exploration of nearby planets like Mars and beyond, which will require safe placement of large payloads on their surfaces.

The overall project is led by Professor Iain Boyd of the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences. Boyd is also director of the hypersonic vehicles research area within the College of Engineering and Applied Science and the director of the new Center for National Security Initiatives on campus.

“We are thrilled to have this opportunity to work in partnership with colleagues across the country on the incredibly challenging and important problem of hypersonic entry system analysis for NASA,” Boyd said.

Boyd said the goal of the center is to significantly advance our ability to use computer simulations to design and ensure the safety of the entry systems required for NASA space exploration missions. These systems protect a payload—whether astronauts, equipment or scientific instruments—during the harsh flight of a space capsule into the atmosphere of a distant planet or on its return to Earth.

To ensure safety, NASA has incredibly demanding entry system reliability requirements that cannot be fully met with today’s approaches, Boyd said. Meeting those goals will require interdisciplinary work in the fields of aerospace engineering, chemistry, radiation, materials, structures and reliability, Boyd said, all within a single, comprehensive computational framework.

The Space Technology Research Institute program started in 2017 and aims to advance technologies for exploring the moon, Mars and beyond in a variety of fields and approaches. At the same time, the program expands the U.S. talent base in research and development.

The new ACCESS institute is one of two center-scale research projects in hypersonics announced by NASA in 2021. The other project is related to high power electric propulsion systems and includes CU Boulder and Boyd as a partner as well.