The World’s Fastest Air-Breathing Engine Will Fly in Australia in 2005

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

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.

Professor Allan Paull, of The University of Queensland’s Centre for Hypersonics, is the technical lead for the Australian Hypersonics Initiative. He said that Australia had established an international standing in hypersonics research.

“Australia’s reputation has been built up over three decades of scramjet research,” Professor Paull said.

University of Queensland Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor David Siddle, said UQ had been at the forefront of scramjet technology development.

“UQ reported for the first time in the open literature the development of a scramjet that achieved more thrust than drag in ground testing in 1993. UQ also led the international HyShot program which demonstrated the world’s first supersonic combustion in an atmospheric flight test at Woomera on July 30, 2002, at speeds of more than Mach 8, or 8 times the speed of sound,” he said.

Professor Siddle added that the new collaboration provided some wonderful opportunities for scientific and engineering advances.

“The HyShot program was successful because it adopted new approaches to scramjet flight-testing. In particular, HyShot used a flight-path to undertake the experiment, with a two-stage rocket booster taking the scramjet payload to an altitude of 315 km, The experiment was completed during the near vertical re-entry phase of the trajectory, ” he said.

Further 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, 2004, over the Pacific Ocean for 10 seconds.

Next year’s atmospheric flight experiment in Australia will be similar to HyShot. The Woomera Prohibited Area, where it will be held, provides for 127,000 km2 of uninterrupted space, allowing ground recovery of each experiment.

The University of Queensland will again 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 explained that he 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.

Dr Harch indicated that DSTO’s scientific contributions to the research program would be in terms of modelling of 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.

The project will include a large element of collaboration with a consortium of US universities; hence the project is being referred to as HYCAUSE, derived from Hypersonic Collaborative Australian/United States Experiment.

The AHI was primarily established to promote a collaborative approach to research into scramjet propulsion technologies, and to facilitate an Australian position when it comes to working with international agencies.

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