6 mins read 03 Apr 2021

Hypersonix and Boeing join forces to develop a hypersonic launch vehicle

Brisbane based startup, Hypersonix Launch Systems Pty Ltd. have joined forces with Boeing  Research and Technology (BR&T) to develop a “proof of concept” sustainable hypersonic satellite launch vehicle which will be powered by the Hypersonix SPARTAN scramjet engine.

The Delta-Velos Orbiter which contains the SPARTAN (ScramJet Powered Accelerator for Reusable Technology AdvaNcement) launching the 3rd stage booster which will contain the satellite payload. Credit - Hypersonix

Two Australian companies, Hypersonix, as well as, Boeing Research and Technology (BR&T) have entered into an agreement to conduct a study into a reusable space launch vehicle using the Hypersonix SPARTAN reusable scramjet. According to Hypersonix, this vehicle would be capable of reaching speeds of over 7,000km/h (classed as hypersonic) and would be fuelled by hydrogen.

Hypersonic technology is seen as the pinnacle of flight, due to its lack of moving parts and high speeds, with Australia having a rich history in hypersonic development going back many decades, being regarded as a leader in this field. 

“It all started with Professor Ray Stalker who developed the free piston shock tunnel, which is essentially a wind tunnel that can be used to simulate the exact conditions you have when you are flying a scramjet engine.”  said co-founder and head of research and development at Hypersonix Launch Systems Professor Michael Smart. 

The free piston shock tunnel, which was pioneered in Australia in the sixties is a large part of Australia’s place in Hypersonic development. 

Whilst scramjets are not a new thing, Hypersonix have developed a reusable engine that can accelerate from Mach 5 to Mach 10. The term hypersonic covers a wide range of speeds, from Mach 5 to Mach 25, which is approximately the speed of atmospheric re-entry. 

However according to Smart, the challenge is that even between Mach 5 and Mach 10 the air flow will behave very differently. SPARTAN has been designed specifically for that range, using computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software to predict how the air will flow and therefore fuel delivery will change. 

The Importance of Hypersonic Flight

Boeing has been looking into hypersonic passenger aircraft for a number of years. This joint investigation with Hypersonix will help them to develop that concept. Credit - Boeing

“A scramjet is an air breathing hypersonic engine.” said Smart, “It’s basically a hypersonic jet engine, so it’s air breathing, so it uses air to generate thrust and adds energy to the air by burning hydrogen, in our case.”

The appeal of hypersonic travel is understandable. It is fast! If we can harness hypersonic engines to passenger planes, theoretically you could travel from Brisbane to New York in 2.5 hrs. 

“Instead of having all the turning blades and compressors we just use the shockwaves and the air itself to create combustion.” said Smart. 

Professor Smart believes that there has been a “confluence” of circumstances that have led to Hypersonix’s success with the SPARTAN scramjet engine. Those circumstances are the length of research that has gone into hypersonic flight, with professor Smart himself being at the forefront, and now the available computing power meaning that it is possible to simulate and predict how a scramjet engine will perform and finally, and probably the most important, is the availability of suitable materials. One of the biggest challenges for Hypersonic flight is the temperatures that are achieved at speeds over Mach 5. 

“Materials selection is definitely one of the biggest challenges” said Dr Bianca Capra, who is an aerospace engineer working in the area of aerothermodynamics of high-speed flight at the University of New South Wales, Canberra.

The internals of a scramjet engine may appear to be simple but it is not a nice place to be. The temperatures reached can be in excess of 1000℃, which would be so bright you wouldn’t be able to look at it. But it is not only the thermal load that needs to be considered, there are significant mechanical and shock-wave loads on the structure. 

This is why special materials are required, materials that can not only survive the difficult environment but not be affected by it in any way. According to Smart they have “been designed to undergo no thermal expansion, meaning you can simplify the design process.”

Boeing and Hypersonix

“The agreement with Hypersonix demonstrates Boeing’s continued commitment to building out critical sovereign capability, supporting the development of Australia’s space industry - safely and sustainably - and also partnering with small and medium-sized enterprises,” said Brendan Nelson, president of Boeing Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific. 

Boeing is no stranger to Hypersonic flight, with Boeing previously having collaborated with the University of Queensland (UQ), BAE Systems, Defence Science Technology Group and U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory on the Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation program (HiFiRE). The program, conducted at the Woomera test range, concluded in 2017. Professor Smart, who was then at UQ was an influential part of the project, having spent 10 years with NASA and has over 30 years of experience researching hypersonic flight. 

Capra said it is great to see industry supporting projects like this, where innovation that has come from university research is being invested in. 

Air Launch to Orbit

The Hypersonix three stage system. Credit - Hypersonix

Air launch to orbit is a process that uses another vehicle to launch rockets into space. Hypersonix is looking at a three-stage system, with their SPARTAN engine being used in the second stage. Using an aircraft to deliver a rocket is more efficient than using a rocket from the Earth, as it requires less fuel as aircraft are more efficient than rockets. The SPARTAN also uses hydrogen which is sourced from BOC as part of its green hydrogen program. 

Smart said the goal of the company is to use hypersonic technology in real life.

As scramjets cannot operate below their minimum operating speed, they require a boost, usually in the form of an aircraft or rocket. Once up to speed the scramjet takes over. This means that the rocket requires a lot less fuel, which in turn leads to less mass. 

Last year Hypersonix received a grant as part of the Accelerating Commercialisation program from the federal government. The grant was awarded to support the flight qualification of the SPARTAN scramjet. The company has grown in the last 12 months from 3 people to 10 and are looking to raise capital for the next stage of the program, flight qualification of their Delta-Velos Orbiter.