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Australian Scientists Test New Supersonic Jet - 2002-07-30

Scientists in Australia have tested a new type of jet designed to fly at more than seven times the speed of sound. The scientists believe the craft, known as a scramjet, could revolutionize air travel, making it possible for commercial flights between Australia and Europe, for example, in just two hours.

Scientists from the University of Queensland say the launch went smoothly in the South Australian outback. It will be another two or three days before the scientists know for sure if they have become the first team to successfully fly a scramjet. But a spokesman says early indications are that the test was a success.

Data collected during the flight will be analyzed after scientists recover what's left of the scramjet, which crashed as planned in the Australian desert after the eight-minute test flight.

Unlike a conventional rocket, the scramjet engine takes oxygen from the atmosphere and mixes it with hydrogen before ignition. The test called for the engine to fire up after being blasted 340 kilometers into the sky by booster rockets. The plan was for the jet to operate on its own for a few seconds before dropping back to Earth. Theoretically, scramjets could be able to power future planes at speeds up to 8,000 kilometers an hour.

Scientists at the University of Queensland say the technology could revolutionize long-haul air travel, cutting the journey from London to Sydney, for example, from more than 20 hours to just two.

Ray Stalker, a founding member of the Queensland research team, says Tuesday's test flight could be the breakthrough they have been looking for.

"There's been a lot of work going on around the world on Scramjets, but none of that work has reached a point where you can be sure of it because nobody has actually tested to see whether the combustion that is an essential part of the Scramjet takes place in flight the same way it does in the wind tunnels."

In certain speed ranges, the scramjet is expected to be more efficient than rockets, which must carry their own oxygen supply. The big drawback is that scramjets only start to work when they are traveling at more five times the speed of sound, or Mach five.

An earlier test flight last October ended in failure when a booster rocket carrying the scramjet veered off course and disappeared in the South Australian desert.