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Sun, Feb 19, 2006 - Page 12 News List

Outback hideout a center for the jet of the future

Aerospace giant Boeing has been taking a quiet interest in a project that could make jets four times as fast as Concorde

By Ben Sandilands  /  THE OBSERVER

Big things are happening with little fanfare at the Woomera Rocket Range in the deserts of South Australia.

While there is no such thing as a traffic jam in that bleak landscape, either on or above it, there is plenty of action going on to tap the potential power of the ultra-high speed scramjet technology.

British, Australian-American and Japanese projects are all scheduled for firings at Woomera this year and US planemaker Boeing has quietly decided to fund research at the University of Queensland's Center of Hypersonics, which famously stole a march on everyone by being the first, in 2002, to actually make a scram jet engine work in flight.

Scram jets are "in theory incredibly simple and in practice quite complex devices" according to Professor Allan Paull, the project leader at the center, which is collaborating with all of the current projects.

"They use velocity to scoop up and compress the air in a manner that allows propulsion to occur at speeds where normal engines, even in Concorde or the fastest military jets, can't function," he says.

Provided they, or the aircraft they are powering at eight times the speed of sound don't melt. The current projects are about getting the engine technology right before designing aircraft that can use it.

As soon as late next month the recently stock-market listed UK defense firm Qinetiq will test its unique design for a hypersonic "scramjet" engine, by firing it back to earth at 11,000kph after it is launched 400km into space atop a research rocket.

In the few seconds before the test flight becomes a crater the engine will attempt to boost its velocity using the scram jet principle.

Qinetiq should be followed into space, and then sharply back from it, by test vehicles from a joint US-Australian defense collaboration and a so far low-key Japanese research project quite distinct from last year's successful rocket launched test flight of a scale model of a proposed supersonic airliner.

However like most of the activities that take place at Woomera, the British mission is low-key even in name.

Qinetiq is simply identifying this mission as the third of a series of the Australian Hyshot scramjet launches even though its rakish quadruple intake design looks very different to the local product.

Hyshot I was a dud, but Hyshot II achieved the world's first scram jet flight back on July 30, 2002, beating the American US$300m Hyper-X program by 21 months in demonstrating the process, and with a budget of a mere US$1.5m.

It was so unbelievably cheap the device became known in aerospace circles as "the scrooge jet," with the Australian researchers buying some of the equipment needed to make it from DIY home improvement stores.

Yet more than low launch costs explain the various national and international scram jet activities that are going on at Woomera.

The Hypersonics Center more than 1,000km away in Brisbane, has the world's original "shock tube" wind tunnels dating back to 1993, built for small change in terms of space budgets, yet considered the best in the world today.

"Shock tubes" generate air flows that can't be achieved in conventional wind tunnels.

"We have a longer practical experience than anyone else," Paull says. "But we emphasize research into unanswered questions more than anything else.

"Some experts claim that using an air breathing scram jet stage in a satellite launch vehicle could increase the payload as much as seven fold. We don't know. We are trying to find out by how much as our own projects continue," he added.

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