By Wilson da Silva
SYDNEY – Australian rocket scientists claimed a world first with the successful test flight of a model scramjet, a supersonic air-breathing engine which may make sub-orbital space flight common.
“It has opened a new gateway to space,” Professor Ray Stalker of the University of Queensland told reporters in Brisbane on Monday. “It’s a major milestone. Never before has a scramjet powered vehicle produced enough thrust to fly.”
An air-breathing craft that could take off from the ground and reach a speed of Mach 26 is now possible, researchers said.
The prototype flew in a shock tunnel at the university, reaching a speed of Mach 7.2, or 7.2 times the speed of sound and equal to about 2.4 km per second.
“Much of the massive cost of space flight is getting out of Earth’s gravitational pull,” said Stalker, considered an authority on scramjets.
“The engine has no limit and can easily produce an orbital speed of Mach 26,” he said.
The university’s T4 shock tunnel is one of the few in the world capable of simulating the flight aerodynamics and stresses prevailing at Earth-orbital speeds, a university spokesman said.
The next stumbling block will be building test facilities that can simulate the aerodynamics of travelling at up to 30,000 km per hour, the researchers said.
The scramjet sucks in air at supersonic speeds, colliding it with onboard fuel and igniting it to propel the craft, without the need for large amounts of oxidants which make reaching orbital speed expensive with today’s rockets.
Fellow researcher Allan Paull said scientists at the United States space agency NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) were ecstatic at the breakthrough.
Stalker said scramjets need another decade of development and at least Australian $200 million before they are ready to begin flying passengers and cargo from runways into space.
Once developed they would allow flights from Sydney to London in two hours, compared with about 22 hours flying time now.