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US picks Australian ‘spaceplane’ for defence testing

Photo: Space Connect

A Brisbane-based company is to supply the US Department of Defense with one of its “spaceplanes” for testing in a breakthrough moment for the local hypersonic industry.

Hypersonix Launch Systems was selected ahead of 63 entrants by the US Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) for a program testing aircraft that can fly faster than five times the speed of sound.

The business believes its “DART AE” aircraft can fly at seven times the speed of sound, while founder Michael Smart has previously told Space Connect’s sister brand, Australian Aviation, his long-term aim is to fly customers to space “like you fly with Qantas”.

The US’ DIU is an organisation within the Department of Defense tasked with accelerating the development of commercial technology so it can be used by the military.

Its Hypersonic and High-Cadence Airborne Testing Capabilities (HyCAT1) program sought aircraft high-cadence long-endurance testing of hypersonic platforms and components; detecting and tracking sensors; and communications, navigation, guidance and control systems.

It said the vehicles must be capable of operating in a “representative environment”, maintaining speeds up to Mach 5 with a manoeuvrable and non-ballistic flight profile, and flying for at least a three-minute duration with near-constant flight conditions, repeatable at short intervals.

According to David Waterhouse, Hypersonix’s managing director, the firm’s vehicles are capable of non-ballistic flight patterns up to at least Mach 7, exceeding the HyCAT1 specification.

“Our longer-term focus is to capture a slice of the emerging multi-billion-dollar commercial market for deployment of small satellites, but clearly, Australia’s strategic defence allies see immediate potential in our technology,” he said.
“This is our first major contract and a key step in our commercialisation process — we couldn’t be happier. This puts Australia one step closer to being a major player in the international space race.”

The DART AE, slated for its first test launch next year, has a range of up to 1000 kilometres, translating to around 400 seconds of flight time, with a modular payload bay of up to 20lbs.

Speaking to Australian Aviation last year, Smart said scramjet-based hypersonic planes are the “next thing in access to space”.

“The Montgolfier brothers developed the air balloon, then the Wright Brothers developed fixed-wing flight, and then propeller technology moved on. Then in the Second World War, jet propulsion came on board,” he said.

“All these new technologies came along to make aircraft technology more efficient, faster, safer … So, spaceplanes, particularly these scramjet engines, are the next technological leap in access to space.”

The breakthrough comes months after NSW-based Quickstep was picked by Australia’s own Department of Defence to try and identify the materials necessary to build the next generation of hypersonic weapons and aircraft.

While hypersonic tech — defined as flying at least five times the speed of sound — is nothing new, countries are currently in an arms race to develop the next generation of missiles that are so manoeuvrable in mid-air they can’t be intercepted or detected.

However, when objects fly so quickly, the friction created can increase temperatures to more than 1,000 degrees. Quickstep is working with the University of New South Wales on the “Hype-X” project to identify and test materials that can survive those extreme conditions.

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