Grades 9-12

Physics, Thermodynamics, Engineering Design

Hypersonics is an activity developed by Learning Undefeated to help students explore thermodynamics and the importance of heat transfer as it relates to speeds over Mach 5.

Hypersonic is in reference to the speed of an object going past Mach 5. Research in this field has been ongoing since the 1960s with space shuttle programs that reach over Mach 25 during re-entry from space. Current ventures in space shuttle technology have shifted over to designing even more advanced materials in hopes of sustainability/reusability in space travel. Furthermore, the application of hypersonics to more regular commercial use, such as air travel, would reduce flight time significantly. What normally takes 5 hours to fly across the United States would only take 30 minutes!

The Department of Defense is researching hypersonics primarily for the purpose of strategic defense. Currently, hypersonic technology is readily available for military use but is very expensive and cost-prohibitive. Efforts are being made to identify and develop cost-effective counter-measures as means of layering defense strategies against foreign opposition. Innovation in this field can be found primarily through the development of materials as seen with space shuttles (carbon-reinforced materials) or sustainability of production of materials (3D printing).

In this activity, students will learn what hypersonics is as it relates to space shuttles and the role of thermodynamics and heat transfer in finding successful space flight.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to

  • Students will know the second law of thermodynamics (heat flows from hot to cold).
  • Students will be able to model and simulate the laws of thermodynamics and heat transfer using the software Energy2D.
  • Students will be able to use the engineering design process to determine the best materials for a thermal protection system for their space shuttle.
Standards Alignments + Connections

Next Generation Science Standards Connections

HS-PS3-4: Plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence that the transfer of thermal energy when two components of different temperature are combined within a closed system results in a more uniform energy distribution among the components in the system (second law of thermodynamics).

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Science Connections

CHEM.7D: describe metallic bonding and explain metallic properties such as thermal and electrical conductivity, malleability, and ductility

CHEM.11B: describe the law of conservation of energy and the processes of heat transfer in terms of calorimetry

IPC.5E: investigate and demonstrate the movement of thermal energy through solids, liquids, and gases by convection, conduction, and radiation such as in weather, living, and mechanical systems

PHY.6E: explain everyday examples that illustrate the four laws of thermodynamics and the processes of thermal energy transfer

Virginia Science Standards of Learning Connections

CH.7A: heat energy affects matter and interactions of matter

Activities to Gather Evidence

Laboratory Activity

Hypersonic may sound like cutting-edge research, and something you heard from Top Gun: Maverick, but it has been around since the 1950s. With all the news about space travel, humans have been tackling, and succeeding, the challenge of surviving hypersonic speeds.

Hypersonic refers to any speed above Mach 5, which is five times greater than the speed of sound. It is at this speed that hypersonic flow occurs, and surviving the shockwave and immense heat becomes the challenge. However, humans have faced this challenge head-on throughout history, surviving speeds as high as Mach 35 during re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere. It is at these speeds that our hypersonic vehicles are heating up to 3,000° C. Through innovation and our understanding of science, humans have been able to successfully put people into space and back to Earth safely.

Recently, there has been an increase in interest from the Department of Defense in hypersonic technology as a means of strategic defense. Having a better understanding of innovation in hypersonics allows for a stronger defense, but can have major commercial implications as well. Flights across the United States that take 5 hours, can be as short as 30 minutes! The issue is whether airplanes are able to survive at these speeds. Sustainability and reusability continue to be at the forefront of hypersonic innovation, and thermodynamics and heat transfer are the foundations in the field.

Our activity uses Energy2D to model thermodynamics and heat transfer. This is free to download from the Concord Consortium

Additional Resources


Free modeling software based on computational physics. Comes with built-in examples as well as allowing the user to design their own computational experiments.

Thermtest Material Database

This database provides thermal properties used in Energy2D. Users are able to look up different materials and apply their thermal properties within their computational experiments.