An Australian first: A zero CO2 emissions hypersonic ‘spaceplane’ will deploy small satellites into Low Earth Orbit
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There is a space race on, and Australia is beginning to wake up.
Brisbane-based aerospace engineering start-up Hypersonix Launch Systems is looking to launch a zero CO2 emissions hypersonic spaceplane capable of deploying small satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
The start-up signed a Master Research Agreement (MRCA) with the University of Sydney yesterday to research and manufacture the components of the zero emissions spaceplane.
According to Hypersonix co-founder and chief technology officer Dr Michael Smart, ‘hypersonic’ means the scramjet engine can travel at five times the speed of sound (1,000km per hour), making it much more efficient compared to other hypersonic engines.
“A jet engine can’t operate at hypersonic speed because the blades would melt, but the scramjet does – it is an air-breathing engine, which means the air comes in and burns hydrogen fuel with it, creating thrust,” he said.
“It is very, very efficient compared to other hypersonic engines such as rockets where you have to carry all your oxygen with you and can weigh up to 60 per cent of your entire rocket.”
Named the Delta Velos and powered by green hydrogen, the spaceplane also includes the world’s first 3D printed fixed geometry (no moving parts) scramjet engine in Australia. In fact, it includes four of them.
Using next generation additive manufacturing technology – the industrial production name for 3D printing – University of Sydney researchers will develop flight-critical components, such as the spaceplane’s launch system and further versions of the scramjet engine at the University’s Sydney Manufacturing Hub.
Smart said Hypersonix had received a lot of interest for its recently announced DART AE project – a three-metre-long, single-use, high-temperature alloy, hydrogen-fuelled, scramjet technology demonstrator.
The demonstrator is a small version of Delta Velos, powered by one single spartan scramjet engine in comparison to Delta’s four – the amount needed to get into LEO.
“We have done more than 6,000 experiments on the ground and we have done some very basic flight tests, but DART AE is the first flight test of the whole system,” he said.
“This is where we are aiming to fly the aircraft for 500km, so halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, and then land it like a normal plane.”
If all goes to plan, the first test flight is set to take off in Q1, 2023 with Hypersonix’s overarching goal being to build and operate a small satellite launch system in Australia for international customers.
“Customers would build the satellites, ship them to Australia and we would launch them into the exact orbit and exact time that they want them,” he said.
“The marketplace is there, analysts are projecting that in the next decade there will be more than 50,000 satellite launches to perform communications, missile warning, and other military missions and we want to be a part of that launch service for that marketplace.”
Having spent his childhood in Brisbane – renowned for being at the forefront of scramjet development – Smart said he travelled to Virginia to undertake a PHD at the NASA Langley Research Centre, where he spent 10 years designing, building, and testing scramjet engines.
On his return to Australia, Smart worked at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Hypersonics (CFH).
“That is why we are ahead of the world; we had this fantastic group of about 30 people doing all sorts of research and now Hypersonix is taking this research we did on scramjets engines and commercialising it.”
Australia, he says, is the perfect place to develop and manufacture space-tech.
“Unlike some Asian countries like Singapore and Thailand, Australia has a very clear airspace – there isn’t a lot of congestion.
“Geographically, we have a lot of opportunities that many other countries don’t and while there are plenty of opportunities to invest in Australian space tech, the industry isn’t growing as fast as others,” he said.
“This is mainly because the investment community lacks the patience for high-tech development.
“We aren’t going to build and fly a scramjet three months from now, it is going to take a couple of years to get the technology to the point where you can create revenue That is well understood in countries such as the US and Israel, but in Australia we don’t have a lot of patience for things.
“That is what has limited the Australian tech sector in the past and continues to limit the market today.
“But there are a lot of cool projects out there and many opportunities to invest in technology that is developed and created in Australia.”
Senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Dr Malcolm Davis says the ‘spaceplane’ concept is a transformative, next generation one, that could revolutionise space access.
“Unlike a rocket, which takes off vertically and (in the case of expendable rockets) is thrown away after each use at a huge cost for each flight, think of a spaceplane as akin to an airliner – which takes off under its own power and flies to the edge of space.
“Then depending on its design boosts into space using what’s known as a ‘combined cycle engine’ (effectively, the engine coverts from a scramjet to a rocket) or launches a second stage into space.
“Once its payload is delivered, the space plane then lands like an airliner, under its own power and nothing is thrown away.”
An Australian company like Hypersonix, he says, would be a world leader in both scramjet technologies and the broader application for hypersonic spaceplanes.
“The impact is akin to what SpaceX are having now with their reusable rocket technology in the US,” he said.
KSS is a space owned Radio Frequency Reconnaissance data-as-a-service (DaaS) company, parterning with launch services provider Spaceflight Inc to deploy its Patrol Mission (KSF2) satellites on the SpaceX Transporter-4 mission scheduled for April 2022.
The launch was originally scheduled this month but was postponed after the Spaceflight orbital transfer vehicle tasked with launching and deploying the satellites experienced technical issues.
“Launching into a sun synchronous orbit, our Patrol Mission satellites will significantly increase our data collection capability and complement the eight satellites we already have in orbit,” Kleos CEO Andy Bowyer said.
The company’s fourth satellite cluster, the Observer Mission (KSF3), is unaffected by the Patrol Mission delay and remains on track to launch in mid-2022.
Australian tech company EOS operates in the space and defence markets.
The company manufactures and delivers sensors and systems for space domain awareness (SDA) and space control and directs energy beams to space objects for applications including tracking, characterisation, identification, communications, remote manoeuvre, and missile defence.
EOS space systems CEO Glen Tindall said Australia has a significant history in the development of hypersonic technologies.
“Researchers in Queensland have been at the forefront of developments for years,” he said.
“Both Sydney University and the University of Technology Sydney have been instrumental in furthering access to new additive manufacturing technologies and in supporting innovative firms via various tech incubators and hubs.
“Although EOS has an established and diverse advanced manufacturing capability, we are continually engaging with these advanced manufacturing hubs to identify, implement and improve on the newer technologies.”
In June 2020, XTEK won an International Space Investment: Expand Capability grant from the Australian Space Agency to fund the design and qualify a launch stack system that deploys up to 30 small satellites into LEO from low-cost rockets.
The project uses XTEK’s XTclave technology, which features unique technical advantages in space applications.