A proposed scramjet designed by Australian scientists to deliver satellites into orbit could open up space to smaller nations and organisations.
The University of Queensland is planning to create a three-stage reusable launch system, codenamed Spartan, capable of delivering satellites weighing up to 500kgs into orbit and allowing them to be monitored nationally or internationally.
The system will take advantage of scramjet technology, a type of super-efficient air-breathing jet engine that uses a vehicle's high speed to compress incoming air before combustion, but which can only operate at supersonic velocities.
Chair of Hypersonic Propulsion Professor Michael Smart said the program aimed to take advantage of dramatic growth in the small satellite market.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Australia’s hypersonic industry to join the space community,” Smart said. “Currently, there are about 1265 satellites orbiting in space, but the cost to launch a single satellite is astronomical.
“Our project aim is to reduce this cost and make it more economically viable for smaller nations and organisations to launch their own satellites and monitor their own space activity through the development of a reusable space launch system.”
The first stage of the system consists of a reusable rocket booster called the Austral Launch Vehicle (ALV) that will lift the upper stages to Mach 5 - the scramjet takeover speed - before flying back to base using wings and propellers.
The second stage Spartan scramjet will fly like a plane up to Mach 10, before releasing the third-stage rocket or satellite into orbit, before it too flies back to base. The combination of the ALV and Spartan allows 95 per cent of the system to be reused.
“If successful, SPARTAN has the potential to change the current paradigm of tossing away spacecraft after each launch,” Professor Smart said.
Small-scale technology demonstrators of the ALV and Spartan system are being developed in partnership with Australian-based company Heliaq Advanced Engineering, with an ALV demonstrator with a 3m wingspan expected to be flown by the end of 2015.
“It will take off like a normal aircraft, stow the wings and then redeploy them,” Professor Smart said. “This test flight will focus on the slow speed handling to prove that this prototype can actually work. We are trying to concentrate on the new things, not the classic rocketry things that have been done before.”
A follow-on rocket-powered demonstrator is also planned, but is still in the funding stages.