An international consortium, led by University of Queensland researchers, is attempting the world’s first flight tests using a supersonic combustion engine on October 25th at the Woomera Protected Area, 500km north of Adelaide in Australia.
It is hoped that the HyShot experiment, as it is called, will validate information already captured in the University of Queensland`s T4 ground shock tunnel, one of the few facilities on earth capable of conducting ground based scramjet experiments for flight Mach numbers of the order of 7.6 or higher.
Scramjets are oxygen-breathing engines that work at hypersonic speeds, giving off water as the only by-product and only needing hydrogen to run. First proposed in the 1950s, they have never been tested in actual flight. The Australian tests will be very fast, at almost Mach 7.6, or 7.6 times the speed of sound.
While scramjets do raise the possibility of Sydney to London flights in two hours, they are set to revolutionise the launch of small space payloads, such as communications satellites, by substantially lowering costs.
Scramjets are much lighter than conventional engines that produce the same power. They have the added benefit that they do not even have to carry most of their propellant as they use oxygen from the atmosphere.
Following this flight, a British scramjet engine belonging to QinetiQ (formerly the bulk of the MOD’s Defence Evaluation & Research Agency) is also to be prepared for flight in the Australian desert on October 30th.
In the US, NASA’s more complex Phase 1, Hyper-X, X-43A scramjet mission has different objectives, and is funded in the vicinity of $185 million. Unfortunately, NASA’s first flight ended in mishap on June 2.