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Australia’s hypersonic industry to join the space community with reusable launcher

10 August 2015

Launching satellites into space could soon be easier and cheaper than ever before, thanks to research at The University of Queensland.

UQ’s Centre for Hypersonics is planning a three-stage transformational space project called SPARTAN, designed to deliver satellites weighing up to 500kgs into orbit and allowing them to be monitored nationally or internationally.

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,” Professor 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.” 

Stage one of the system consists of an Austral Launch Vehicle (ALV), a reusable rocket booster that lifts the upper stages of the rocket to scramjet take-over speed of Mach five, before flying back to base using wings and propellers.

The second stage SPARTAN scramjet will fly like a plane up to Mach 10, releasing the final rocket/satellite that stays in space, before it too returns to base. 

The combination of the ALV and SPARTAN allows 95 per cent of the system to be reusable.

“If successful, SPARTAN has the potential to change the current paradigm of tossing away spacecraft after each launch,” Professor Smart said.

Partnering with Australian-based company Heliaq Advanced Engineering, the team is developing sub-scale versions of the ALV and SPARTAN as technology demonstrators.

It is expected that a subscale demonstrator (ALV-0) with a three-metre wingspan will 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.