The von Karman Institute joins forces with NASA in the conquest of space

The von Karman Institute, based in Rhode-Saint-Genèse, will work with NASA on methods of protecting spacecraft.

The informal collaboration which could exist until now between the von Karman Institute (IVK), based in Rhode-Saint-Genèse, and NASA just entered a new dimension. The research center specializing in fluid dynamics and the American space agency have indeed signed a major cooperation agreement, we learned on the sidelines of the economic mission led by Princess Astrid across the Atlantic.

“Every time you go to a new planet, you come across a whole bunch of surprises. But you only get one try.”

Kent Bress

Head of International Partnerships at NASA

In addition to exchanging their researchers, the two parties will now pool also their findings and best practices in aerospace. Objective? Improve the methods employed in the protection of spaceships helping us to explore the planets around us.

Every time you travel to a new planetyou come across a whole host of surprises (linked in particular to the specific composition of their atmosphere)”, recalls Peter Grognard, director of the Institute. “However, despite the gigantic number of unknown that may exist, you only have the right to one try to do what has never been done before. It is therefore important to be able to make the most informed guess possible,” adds Kent Bress, head of international partnerships at NASA.

This is good, since this is precisely the hobby of the Belgian flagship (and international reference) of research in the field of aeronautics and aerospace.

Belgian flagship

Unknown to the general public, the IVK was founded in 1956 by Hungarian-American physicist and engineer Theodore von Kármán. NASA would not be created until two years later… A non-profit, educational and scientific organization under Belgian law, it is dedicated to research and training in three specific areas which are aeronautics and aerospace, applied fluid dynamicsand finally, turbomachinery and propulsion. His team consists of 130 people.

To test, analyze and model, the Institute has three unique machines in the world, including the “Plasmatron”

His clients are called Safran Aero Boosters, Bekaert, ArcelorMittal, Elia, Airbus or the European Space Agency (ESA). “It is hard to imagine how much this field of fluid dynamics is present in and affects our daily lives, just as it has become important for many companies”, explained to us, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Institute, a of its leaders. “We will, for example, study here how winds rotate around buildings to reduce inconvenience pedestrians, trying tooptimize the location of new wind turbinesworking at reduce noise in transport or study the circulation of pollutants in the air”.

Three unique machines

To test, analyze and model, theInstitut has three unique machines in the worldwhose “Plasmatron“. This machine, whose name sounds like the title of a science fiction film from the 70s, is a wind tunnel that will test the thermal protection of materials. Indeed, space vehicles that enter the Earth’s atmosphere undergo a thermal shock which they will have to resist or risk disintegrating.

Another “beautiful room”, the size of a warehouse: the “Longshot“, a kind of huge piston that will compress the air and then release it in a fraction of a second in an airtight tank. This allowsstudy air turbulence, validate space trajectories or finalize the design of a shuttle.


But, there is a but“. While the IVK’s equipment is still among the most efficient in the world, its buildingsthey have aged. In addition, the teams felt increasingly cramped as soon as new equipment arrived at the centre.

Several solutions were then examined.including that of moving to the former NATO site in Evere, a rather unrealistic option when some of the IVK’s giant equipment is literally “concreted” into the building.

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