Hyshot tests hypersonic "scramjet" in Australia

Saturday, March 25, 2006

How scramjet engines work

A supersonic jet engine known as a "scramjet," which could substantially reduce air travel time has been tested at Woomera, in South Australia's far north. An international team launched the Terrier-Orion rocket carrying the hypersonic scramjet—an oxygen-sucking supersonic combustion ramjet engine. The rocket took the prototype aircraft to an altitude of 314km (195 mi) before crashing ten minutes later, a spokeswoman for the Hyshot program said. A supersonic boom was felt across the Woomera test range seconds after the jet took off.

The Queensland-led HyShot III experiment uses a scramjet engine developed by UK company, QinetiQ. Travelling at 8,000 km/h (~5000 mph), or ten times the speed of a conventional jet, and almost eight times the speed of sound (Mach 8), the rocket turned and powered back to Earth some 400 km (250 mi) down the range. The scientists are hoping the scramjet kicked into action during a six-second window shortly before impact.

The advantage of a scramjet is that once it is accelerated to about Mach 4 by a conventional jet engine or booster rocket, it can fly at hypersonic speeds, possibly as fast as Mach 15, without carrying heavy oxygen tanks, as conventional rockets do.

Team leader Professor Allan Paul says that the flight went well, but that it will take several months to analyse the collected data. He told the media it was too soon to tell if the $2 million experiment had been a success.

Another HyShot team member Michael Smart said the flight followed the nominal trajectory and impacted 400 km (250 mi) from its launch pad. Dr Smart said that radar tracking data showed the experiment had gone to plan.

Professor Paull said scramjet-powered passenger jets were still a long way off, but it might be possible to have a scramjet-powered vehicle within the next decade. He says the team is happy with the result so far.

NASA set the speed record for a jet-powered aircraft in [November 2004] during the third and final flight of the experimental X-43A scramjet project.

Two HyShot scramjet flights had previously been made—one on 30 October 2001 and another on 30 July 2002. Supersonic combustion was achieved on the second flight. HyShot IV launch is planned for 28 March.