It’s been a long time since Australia was a player in space exploration. One man wants to change that – with the help of a plane that travels five times the speed of sound.
To reach these hypersonic speeds, Smart plans to combine an uncrewed scramjet with conventional rockets. Michael Smart, professor of hypersonics at the University of Queensland believes his Spartan launch system could radically reduce the costs of blasting satellites into orbit.
“All conventional satellite launch systems use different stages,” says Smart. “There’ll be a first stage rocket that normally gets up to Mach 5 or 6, you’ll have a second scramjet stage that goes two thirds of the way to space and you’ll have a final upper stage that takes the satellite into orbit.”
On the launchpad, Spartan will look and launch like a conventional rocket. Once it reaches hypersonic speeds, however, the first stage will drop away and the scramjet will unfurl its wings to blast the spacecraft into the upper atmosphere. When it runs out of air, the scramjet will separate and a small conventional rocket will carry the satellite into space.
Although Smart’s goal is to get Australia back into the satellite launch business, hypersonic aircraft hold the promise of radically reducing flight times on Earth. Most aerospace journalists have written a story on hypersonic travel, promising flights from London to Sydney in two hours, and there have been several proposals to help realise that dream. But could combining conventional rockets and scramjets be the answer instead?
“If we can prove scramjets as a useful technology to put passengers in space then they’ll be other ideas about how to use them, and flying Sydney to London might be one of those,” Smart says. “