Jet engineers scramble for the ultimate rush

Jet engineers scramble for the ultimate rush


Sydney to London in two hours? Australia to California in just over one?

An international race is underway to flight test a hypersonic "scramjet" engine, which researchers believe will one day allow people to fly at 8,000 km (5,000 miles) per hour or more, making inflight movies and "economy-class syndrome" a thing of the past.

The Centre for Hypersonics at Australia's University of Queensland is one of the contestants, and has slated its first tests for the end of June and the beginning of July, HyShot project leader Allan Paull said on Thursday.

A NASA/Langley Research Centre-led project, Hyper-X, is likely to carry out a test in the United States shortly before.

But the Australian version of the engine, which will use the rush of air at high speeds to ignite pollution-free hydrogen, is particularly interesting because so far it has been built for a cost of just over A$1 million (US$520,000).

"It's cheap as chips," Paull told Reuters.

Supersonic is defined as up to Mach 4, four times the speed of sound, and hypersonic is anything above that.

Commercial flights at Mach 8 are still way off. Concorde, for example, cruises at supersonic levels of around Mach 2.2.

The fastest known aircraft was the U.S. SR-71 Blackbird, developed at the height of the Cold War for high-altitude spying on the Soviet Union, and which flew at a speed of about Mach 3.1.

SATELLITES AND MILITARIES FIRST, PEOPLE LATERScramjets - short for supersonic combustion ramjet - will probably make an impact first in the field of satellite launches, because unlike conventional rockets, they do not need to carry their own oxygen supply and would free up space for cargo.

Paull said there were bound to be savings as a result.

The military community is also watching with great interest the HyShot test at Woomera, a former rocket test site 450 km (280 miles) north of Adelaide, Australian defence sources said.

The University of Queensland project is backed by the Australian military, the U.S. Air Force, an agency of Britain's Department of Defence and Japanese, German and Korean bodies.

The much more expensive U.S. experiment will actually involve flight, attaching a scramjet to a small aircraft, and aim for Mach 7 at an altitude of 30 km (19 miles) - 20 km higher than normal commercial flights.

The Australian scramjet will simply test "shock tunnel" results by shooting an engine into the atmosphere on a rocket, and hoping it will ignite as it plunges back down to Earth.

Paull's speed objective is Mach 7.6, and the engine should ignite 35 km to 23 km (22 miles to 14 miles) off the ground.

The first test flight had been expected to take place last year. But a delay in the delivery of the rockets and some technical glitches pushed back the date.

Allan said HyShot was a virtual "do-it-yourself". All of the parts are straight off retail store shelves.

"It's the only aircraft that's got Dick Smith all over it," he joked, referring to a well-known Australian electrical chain.

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