Space: the final farce

NASA’s $250m Genesis space probe smashed into the Utah desert last month because switches designed to detect re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and trigger its parachutes were installed backwards.

It has emerged that NASA’s $250m (£139m) Genesis space probe, which smashed into the Utah desert last month, did so because switches designed to detect re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and trigger its parachutes were installed backwards.

The expensive mistake is believed to have been the result of faulty designs by Lockheed Martin, which NASA engineers failed to spot, according to the aptly named Mishap Investigation Board.

Although obviously by no means the first such mishap to befall NASA, the embarrassing episode is a far cry from the success of the Mars Exploration Rovers. When the two robots began transmitting breathtaking images of the red planet’s surface back to Earth earlier this year, in sharp contrast to the depressing silence from Beagle 2, you could have been forgiven for despairing that the funding gap for technology development between the UK and US in aerospace research was just too great to be bridged.

In military aircraft, too, the US’s huge defence budget means the country’s next-generation unmanned fighter jets programme is far ahead of Europe and in particular the UK – a fact not helped by the UK’s dithering over whether to join Europe or the US in UCAV development projects.

But as the Genesis accident shows, the US aerospace sector is far from infallible. And in one area of aerospace research, hypersonics, the UK now finds itself with an unusual chance to steal a march on its allies across the Atlantic.

The Australian Hyshot programme, led by the University of Queensland’s Dr. Allan Paull, was set up on a shoestring in space research terms to investigate scramjets, or air-breathing engines, in a bid to halt the country’s engineering brain-drain and perhaps establish a low-cost space launcher industry.

The project has until now had a fraction of the budget available for hypersonics research in the US, so much so that Paull had to go cap in hand around the international aerospace community (including NASA) to secure funding, earning the project the nickname ‘scroungejet’.

The UK’s Qinetiq joined up, as did the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, but funding remained an issue. So the team decided to keep costs to a minimum by starting small and attempting to understand what they could achieve with scramjet engine technology, unlike NASA’s more ambitious approach of building a complete hypersonic research aircraft.

This tortoise versus hare approach has meant the project has at times been overshadowed by NASA’s successes, including the Mach 7 flight of its X-43A scramjet-powered aircraft in March. But as the US prepares to bow out of hypersonics research – admittedly in some style, with a Mach 10 flight next month – the Hyshot team may yet be the first to develop a scramjet-powered launcher. So the UK may find itself on the winning team after all.

Ironically, though, the Hyshot programme could prove the saviour of US hypersonics research. One of the scramjet flight tests planned for next year at the team’s launch site in Australia will be a Mach 10 flight with DARPA.

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