Computational research

US researchers are to develop new computer modelling techniques that can predict the behaviour of complex systems.

The Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences (ICES) at the University of Texas at Austin has been selected by the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to develop new computer modelling techniques that can predict the behaviour of complex systems.

The Center for Predictive Engineering and Computational Sciences (PECOS), a research unit within ICES, will receive $17m over five years for the project. The university will contribute another $1.7m in funding.

Predictive science uses computer simulations to predict the response of complex systems where routine experimental tests are not feasible. A critical part of predictive science is the quantification of uncertainties, because it is important to know how reliable the results of the computer simulations are.

The University of Texas at Austin researchers will focus on the problem of uncertainty quantification as it applies to the re-entry of vehicles from space into Earth’s atmosphere.

When a vehicle re-enters the atmosphere, it can be at speeds as high as Mach 40. This causes the surrounding gas to be heated to temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun. Computational simulations to predict whether the vehicle will survive require modelling the interaction of the complex physical processes that occur at these extreme temperatures, such as thermal radiation, turbulence, thermal degradation of materials, and thermal and chemical non-equilibrium.

Ensuring the validity and quantifying the uncertainty of the models used in predictive simulations of such complex systems is challenging because of the many models involved and the many sources of uncertainty.

PECOS scientists along with partners at NNSA and NASA will be developing the computational tools needed to determine the chances that a given vehicle will not survive re-entry. Such tools will be valuable to NASA for designing and operating future space vehicles.