Hypersonics research speeds up

The world’s fastest air-breathing engine will fly in Australia in 2005 in a collaborative two-nation experiment that is expected to provide a major boost to the fledgling scramjet technology.

Australian and US defence interests have signed a $4.6 million contract to conduct a controlled scramjet experiment at Mach 10, or about 11,000km an hour, at Woomera, South Australia, possibly in the second half of next year.

Scramjets are air-breathing supersonic combustion ramjet engines. They are set to make possible two-hour flights from Sydney to London and revolutionise the launch of small space payloads, such as communications satellites, by substantially lowering costs.

Partners in the new project are the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Australian Hypersonics Initiative (AHI) represented by the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), the University of Queensland, the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, and the Australian National University, together with the State Governments of South Australia and Queensland.

The University of Queensland will lead the flight program, supported by the Canberra node of the AHI. The Canberra-based hypersonics research team is comprised of staff at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, and the Australian National University.

Dr. Russell Boyce of the University of New South Wales and his colleagues plan to carry out computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and finite element modelling (FEM) calculations, as well as shock tunnel testing, to support the scramjet design and post-flight data analysis.

DSTO’s scientists will model the combustion processes, non-linear mechanics, guidance and control, and trajectory analysis. Assisting with telemetry collection is another important area, which presents quite a challenge when working with a vehicle travelling at hypersonic speeds.

Dr. Warren Harch, Chief of DSTO’s Weapons Systems Division, said future defence applications for hypersonic vehicles include long-range reconnaissance of potentially global proportions, while civilian applications include low-cost satellite launching and high-speed aircraft.

“Hypersonic propulsion using supersonic combustion ramjet (scramjet) technology offers the possibility of high speeds and fuel efficiencies that many believe will put numerous defence and civilian aerospace applications within our reach during the next couple of decades,” Dr. Harch added.

Interest in scramjet technology was fuelled earlier this year when NASA flew its X-43A scramjet-powered aircraft freely for the first time at a speed of Mach 7 on March 27, over the Pacific Ocean for 10 seconds.