Jan 27, 2013

Sydney-London 2 hours hyperdribble cycle churns on

The latest attempt to tart up hypersonics research as being about Sydney-London in two hours reflects another exercise in dressing up funding for military super weapons developments.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking


A blurry frame from the DLR SpaceLiner video

Evidence that the nearest thing to a perpetual motion machine is the PR dishonesty that pumps out stories  cyclically over the decades about Sydney-London hypersonic flights in two hours can be found in this week’s contribution by the Daily Mail, which apparently will fall for anything.

These stories have been churning along since the early 70s, when it was claimed rightly or wrongly that the amount of rocket fuel the then benchmark Atlas rocket burned to put the mass equivalent of an adult into earth orbit was the same by volume or weight as the kerosene burned to fly the same passenger between Sydney and London via Singapore and Bahrain in a Boeing 747-100.

All the was necessary, and achievable, within a few years was to devise a rocket passenger device in which the fuel per passengers was all burned more quickly than in the clumsy subsonic jumbo jets, and send them on a precision sub sonic trajectory in what was really a passenger carrying intercontinental ballistic missile that would deposit them after re-entry somewhere within unpowered gliding distance of their landing at 300 miles an hour at Heathrow. Easy.

Pump the thing full of fuel for the return journey, and blast another rocket load of kangaroo route revellers back on their way to Bondi. You’d hardly notice the takeoff from central London, presumably a glass window less greater London, as the whole beaming boffin assembly would blast its way atop a column of fire through the sound barrier less than a minute after lift-off at less than 3000 metres altitude.

There were subtle variations. It would get piggy backed to a suitable altitude by a giant lifter, sort of like Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo, but less agile, then dropped prior to ignition of the main engines. Fast forward through the Hotol projects and its many offspring, and defence and space research bodies are still trotting out the same nonsense whenever they want to waste some money on raising public awareness by promising that London-Sydney flights in two hours, actually significantly less than two hours if we are talking a rocket launched trajectory, were really close at hand.

The Daily Mail story, quoting the Spaceliner concept by des Deutschen Zentrums für Luft- und Raumfahrt or DLR, has less ‘urgency’ than in the past. The technology won’t be working until maybe 2050, and instead of being launched from city centre to city centre, would use remote sites, probably destroying much of the time saving in the case of London, as the landing site graphic in the story looks vaguely like Peenemünde the third reich rocket weaponry testing site that perfected the V2 rockets that rained down on London in WWII.

What must annoy the hell out of legitimate space scientists, including perhaps those in the DLR, is that there is nothing, not a single thing, in the breathlessly reported rocket system it sees as being used that hasn’t been expounded in great detail for at least the last 30 years. Or twice as long as the publicists have been alive.

The DLR does seriously good work. The Spaceliner stunt disgraces it. A similar criticism has been made here on various occasions about the UQ hypersonics centre in Brisbane. That is a world leading research establishment, and something for Australia to be very proud of, provided we keep in mind that the first, second and third ranking applications of the technology are in defense, in the building of better devices to incinerate tens of millions of people without warning, if such acts of mass murder ever prove necessary to bring freedom, harmony and light to the world, or to people-like-us!

Tarting up hypersonics for mass travel is dishonest. It may give the countries that sponsor the research at the UQ better insights in better satellite and weapons launchers. It can actually help, after the defense needs are served, in the peaceful or industrial use of space, and there is no reasonable doubt that the age of mass space transportation approaches.

But if we wish to be realistic, exercises like the one in the Daily Mail are just there to make funding requests more palatable, and to desensitize any serious public discussions as to what are the underlying priorities of hypersonics research.

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4 thoughts on “Sydney-London 2 hours hyperdribble cycle churns on

  1. drpixie

    Hi Ben,

    Nobody sane would disagree with the thrust of your comments. Some quick back-of-the-envelope figures.

    The Atlas (say an Atlas I) burns about 160t of fuel, for maybe 6t of payload to low orbit. If half the payload is pax, that’s 3t pax, say 30 pax with small baggage allowance. Or around 5t of fuel per pax, to go anywhere in the world.

    An A380 burns something like 200t to carry 600 pax 7000nm. Or about .7t per pax to the other side of the world.

    Rough figures, it’s going to cost about 10 times more to go by space – when everything else is equal.

    Not likely to be an economic proposition in these days of extra-supa-el-cheapo airfares. Of course, the military might be more interested … anything, anywhere for only 10 (or 100) times the cost of the going by air.

  2. comet

    There might be developments in new materials that address the thermal issues.

    But even so, it wouldn’t address the logistics, or the costs (as drpixie pointed out above). Fuel prices in 2050 will be much higher than today.

  3. johnb78

    Cost-wise, we’re looking at what, $20k worth of fuel per person? A CEO at a big miner takes home $50-100k a day (probably about the same for a rock star or a NFL/baseball/EPL player), so if this knocks a day of otherwise unproductive or barely productive travel time, there’s a genuine, albeit small, civilian market.

  4. Malcolm Street

    ” there’s a genuine, albeit small, civilian market.” As there was for Concorde, just not big enough.

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