‘Scramjet tester’ to launch Down Under

Australian researchers will next month launch a baby rocket to test control systems for vehicles travelling at hypersonic speeds, ahead of full scramjet tests next year.

Scramjets use oxygen from the air as a propellant, and could ultimately make it possible to fly between London and Sydney in just two hours, it is claimed. They could also dramatically reduce the cost of launching small payloads such as communications satellites into space.

The hypersonics team at the University of Queensland will launch the tiny, reusable payload Hyshot Zuni I, which weighs just 5.8kg, from a missile range at Woomera in South Australia. The team undertook the world’s first test flight of a concept scramjet engine at Mach 7.6 in 2002.

During the October tests the Hyshot ZI payload will be attached to a 1.5m Zuni single-stage rocket, said Dr Allan Paull, team leader of the Hyshot programme at the university. The researchers will conduct several experiments to deliberately create instability and then regain control of the vehicle.

‘We are placing a small payload on the front of a Zuni rocket to test aerodynamic control, which will be required for one of the flights in the following year,’ he said.

The team is planning three flight tests next year, including a Mach 7.6 flight using a scramjet configuration designed by Qinetiq, and another Mach 7.6 flight in collaboration with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). A further flight test, at Mach 10, is being funded by Darpa.

Next month’s flight will simulate forces the researchers expect to face during these full-scale tests, and will trial new hardware as well as control algorithms. The small craft will be fitted with an array of computer sensors, web cameras, manoeuvrable surfaces and a new battery pack design, as well as a tiny parachute.

The rocket will take off at a 70º trajectory, and burn for 1.2 seconds until it reaches Mach 3.1. The reusable Zuni rocket will then separate at about 600m above the Earth. The flight will continue for about one minute, until Hyshot ZI reaches 6km above the Earth, when the tiny parachute will be activated to bring the payload down.