Launching rockets in the Australian desert
The other day, I started watching the new Top Gun movie, and the Mach 10 scene made me jump out of my chair. In the scene, Maverick (Tom Cruise) is flying a test plane trying to get it to Mach 10. As he’s accelerating through Mach 1, 2, 3…3.5…he says “transitioning to scramjet”…that’s the bit that made me jump.
Twenty one years ago, when I was a little undergrad, I got to be part of the Hyshot team when they demonstrated the first-ever successful test flight of a scramjet engine. The team was led by Prof. Allan Paull at The University of Queensland.
(Scramjet stands for supersonic combustion ramjet, and what makes it special is that it’s an air breathing engine…once you get it up to a certain speed, it uses air for fuel)
Before I joined the team, they had already attempted the mission once before, but the rocket crashed, with pieces of it scattered across the desert in the centre of Australia.
So the first cool thing I got to do was measure the mangled remains of the rocket to help with modelling what went wrong.
Then, I was lucky enough that they invited me to join the second mission.
We took a couple of days to drive from Brisbane to the Woomera test range in South Australia. The team then spent a week preparing for the launch…and I got to play my little part by filling and releasing weather balloons that helped telemetry track the wind behaviour leading up to the launch.
When the rocket launched, I was a couple of kms away…but in the open desert this felt very, very close! At first, it seemed completely silent, but a few seconds later, I was hit with a roaring sound wave. As the rocket was making its way up, up into the sky, I remember seeing the first fuel stage disconnect and being worried it was going to fall on me! (spoiler: it didn’t!)
The mission was a success and the team went on to do quite a few more missions, improving the technology, while I went on to work on quantum information. But I’m forever grateful to them for letting me be part of this little piece of history. It was really one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
If you want to know more about the missions, here are some links:
- On the trail of the Scramjet by Peter Macinnis
- Scramjet on Wikipedia
- HyShot on Wikipedia
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