Sep 16, 2013

Australia’s Scramspace 1 rocket ready for its fiery fall to earth

As soon as today the first and largest project funded by the Australian Space Research Program, a vehicle called SCRAMSPACE 1, is due to plunge back to earth over a rocket range in

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

UQ Hypersonics team preparing the test vehicle for its Norwegian mission

As soon as today the first and largest project funded by the Australian Space Research Program, a vehicle called SCRAMSPACE 1, is due to plunge back to earth over a rocket range in northern Norway in a brief flight test at hypersonic speeds.

This vehicle, which will reach a speed of around mach 8, or eight times the speed of sound, will also try to demonstrate effective hypersonic engine combustion at the velocity, temperatures and pressures  generated by the rocket falling back to earth.

Scramjets are air-breathing engines that travel at hypersonic speeds.

Such hypersonic flight investigations are a strong point in Australian science, with the UQ and its supporting universities and agencies having a well established record for breakthrough discoveries in this area for miniscule research budgets compared to other national and international programs pursuing similar aims.

The rationale and technologies used by Scramspace 1 can be explored on its web site.

The scramjet will be launched at Andoya Rocket Range, 300km north of the Arctic Circle.

On launch, the 1.8 metre long spacecraft will reach an altitude of 320 kilometres, powered by a two-stage rocket. After leaving the atmosphere, the scramjet vehicle will separate from the rocket and, using small thrusters, orient itself for the re-entry.

The part of the experiment important to the scientists takes place at an altitude of between 32 and 27 kilometres. This is where the scramjet’s hydrogen fuel will be injected, and a wide range of instruments will analyse the combustion and measure thrust.

This is when the team will collect the most valuable data, before the scramjet self-destructs over the sea as planned.

However success isn’t assured. There are risks in the rocket ride that takes it high enough to generate the return velocity needed to conduct the experiment. There are risk in the extreme thermal loadings of that plunge, in which timing, data links, and the integrity of the materials and systems involved must all perform perfectly in the fleeting interval before they are consumed by the destructive re-entry of the rocket.

One of the interesting things about the information published this time about Scramspace 1 is the lack of hype about how it could lead to Sydney-London flights in four hours (or similar) within one or two decades.

That sub genre of witless media reporting, often previously encouraged by publicists for hypersonic programs, trivialises the serious intent of the research , which the Scramspace site summarises this way.

The data collected at such speeds will give insights into hypersonic physics, hypersonic combustion, performance of materials and components, and how these vehicles will fly in future.

These insights could, for example, offer solutions to deliver satellites into orbit more efficiently.

As part of the Australian Space Research Program, this project supports Australia’s access to space, and helps build the talent pool of engineers, scientists and specialists we need to do it.

The hypersonic envelope being explored by experiments like Scramspace 1 might never be exploited for long distance passenger flights, since many of the thermodynamic challenges (like the vaporising outer layers of a vehicle under sustained mach 8 flight) are transitory and less damaging in even faster sub-orbital vehicles, although they also face daunting problems in being scaled up to the capacity and reliability needed by such intercontinental passenger sized rocketliners of the future.



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3 thoughts on “Australia’s Scramspace 1 rocket ready for its fiery fall to earth

  1. comet

    I wonder if new materials could overcome the thermal issues. Graphene is one that comes to mind.

  2. Geoff

    I’m a regular reader of Flight and while the US work on Scramjets often gets a mention I have never seen Australia’s contribution acknowledged. It’s a pity I just hope we are getting something out of this research as a nation.

    In regard to civilian use; the theme I always read is the US determination to be able to attack any place on earth from the continental US in less than 2-3 hours. Not with bombers but with missiles. Perhaps when that is achieved there may be a spin-off to civil aviation but it will not be as easy as bomber to civil transport as has occurred in the past.

  3. Allan Moyes

    Well given that the new government doesn’t even have a mention of Science in any of its portfolios, I doubt if we’ll see much development of this unless, as is so often the case, they have to go “offshore” for developmental funding.

    I’m not surprised by Geoff’s comment about acknowledging Australia’s contribution – the same goes for most things scientific, even in this country. Now if it were being developed by an AFL team…….

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