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Australia and US putting hypersonic flight within reach

The F-35A will prove to be a valuable addition to the RAAF over the next few years."

It is quite clear that advances in transportation technology have brought the farthest corners of the globe closer together. The changes in travel time from the United Kingdom to Australia over the last two centuries are particularly illustrative of this.

According to Museum Victoria, a voyage by sailboat from the UK to Australia could take up to four months in 1850. By the 1900s, a combination of steamer technology and the opening of the Suez Canal reduced that trip to just under 40 days. Modern aeroplanes have shortened the trip considerably further - British Airways run flights between London and Sydney in just under 23 hours. 

Now, thanks to a joint project between Australian and American research teams, Sydney and London could soon be much closer by air.

London and Sydney are about a day apart by air. Hypersonic flight can shorten that to two hours.London and Sydney are about a day apart by air. Hypersonic flight can shorten that to two hours.

What is hypersonic flight?

As the name suggests, hypersonic flight refers to the ability for an aircraft to travel significantly faster than the speed of sound - speeds of Mach 5.5 are generally considered hypersonic, according to the Department of Defence.

Aircraft speeds more than Mach 5.5 - five and a half times the speed of sound - are considered hypersonic.

A joint effort between the Defence Science and Technology Group and the US Air Force Research Laboratory - with additional support provided by Boeing and the University of Queensland, the Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation (HiFiRE) Program seeks to investigate the technologies needed to achieve prolonged hypersonic flight. At US$54 million, it is one of the most expensive joint research projects between the US and Australia.

The HiFiRE program had previously enjoyed a successful display of hypersonic flight in May 2012 - a scramjet launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii successfully accelerated from Mach 6 to Mach 8 and was able to fly at that speed for 12 seconds, according to the Air Force Research Laboratory.

The team's work has also been internationally lauded - In 2012, the International Council of Aeronautical Sciences awarded the HiFiRE team with the von Karman Award for International Co-operation in Aeronautics.

HiFiRE 5B takes off

On May 18, HiFiRE scientists conducted a successful test of a hypersonic rocket at South Australia's Woomera Test Range, according to the Department of Defence. Also called HiFiRE 5B, the experimental rocket travelled at a speed seven and a half times faster than sound - Mach 7.5, or 2,900 kilometres per hour - and reached its apogee at 278 kilometres. At such speeds, a hypersonic jet would be able to make the trip between London and Sydney in approximately two hours, according to the University of Queensland.

HiFiRE 5B reached speeds of Mach 7.5 during a flight at South Australia's Woomera Test Range.

Professor Michael Smart, a member of the School of Mechanical and Mining Engineering at the University of Queensland, stated that the data collected during the HiFiRE test flight will contribute to the development of advanced aircraft powered by scramjet technology.

Australia's chief defence scientist, Dr Alex Zelinsky, offered his congratulations to the HiFiRE team and noted the potential the flight could have for advances in air travel.

"The success of this test launch takes us one step closer to the realisation of hypersonic flight," Dr Zelinsky said.

"[Hypersonic flight] is a game-changing technology identified in the 2016 Defence White Paper and could revolutionise global air travel, providing cost-effective access to space."

Continuing the HiFiRE program's track record of success, more test flights are scheduled to take off from Woomera in 2017.

How do scramjets work?

According to NASA's Glenn Research Center, hypersonic flight is made possible through scramjet engines.

With any aircraft that runs on a propulsion system, a working fluid is required. Thrust, the force essential for flight, is created when this working fluid is accelerated. Scramjets - and their predecessors, ramjets - generate this thrust through fuel combustion, the exhaust of which is then moved through a nozzle that focuses and speeds up the flow.

The name 'ramjet' comes from the process by which external air is rammed into the engine as an aircraft moves forward. This air functions as the working fluid and enables combustion at the right pressure to allow for exhaust to flow through the engine and generate thrust.

A major obstacle in hypersonic flight is that ramjets must slow the incoming external air to subsonic speeds before combustion to occur. Over Mach 5, these engines would have to expend more energy slowing the incoming air than producing thrust. This renders them incapable of such speeds.

On the other hand, scramjets - supersonic combustion ramjets - are able to handle combustion without the need to slow the incoming air. This eliminates the issue ramjets face at higher speeds and allows for hypersonic flight within the atmosphere.

With the information gathered through the HiFiRE program, hypersonic flight technology will move even closer to widespread applications in air travel.

The HiFiRE program will play a key role in developing hypersonic engines of the future.The HiFiRE program will play a key role in developing hypersonic engines of the future.

Interconnect Systems has a comprehensive background in aerospace and defence engineering, being an industry leader for more than 20 years. It provides electrical interconnect products and solutions, including cable and wire harness manufacture. For more information on the best backshells and cable harness solutions, contact Interconnect Systems today on 1800 812 214 FREE.

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