To the moon and back – a new era of space travel


Australia’s own pioneer in space exploration, Professor Michael Smart from The University of Queensland’s School of Mechanical and Mining Engineering, is redefining space travel with reusable high-speed planes with air-breathing engines.

Moving on from the moon landing

In the glory days of the 1960s space race, NASA was asked by President Kennedy to “send an astronaut to the moon, and return him safely to Earth before the decade is out”. At the time, there were two possible ways to do this: the first and easiest was to use massive rockets that were thrown away after each launch; the second and more futuristic possibility was to use a hypersonic airplane that could be used many times over for at least part of the trip.

NASA chose throw-away' rockets, and in 2017, the method of going to space is little changed from the Apollo moon missions of the 1960s. Almost all space launches of satellites or astronauts use expendable rockets.

Innovative thinkers like Elon Musk with his company, SpaceX, are trying to change this paradigm in an attempt to make space launch less wasteful and more economical. The University of Queensland, with its world leading scramjet technology, is planning to do the same by developing the SPARTAN launch system for small satellites, which is 90 per cent reusable.

A scramjet is an air-breathing engine, like a jet, that works at hypersonic speed; that’s mach 5, or five times faster than the speed of sound.

It uses oxygen from the air to combust with fuel and generate thrust. It’s much more efficient than a rocket, which must carry all its oxygen on-board.

Scramjets have been around for many years, but the technology has one significant limitation: scramjets only work at hypersonic speed. You cannot take-off under scramjet power. Given this limitation, UQ has been developing scramjet engines that work from mach 5 to mach 10.

With the market for small satellites well established and growing, and the rapid pace that technology is advancing, the requirements of satellite launch systems are changing.

Due to the rapid development of micro-scale, low-power electronics, satellites that were once many thousands of kilograms now weigh just hundreds of kilograms.

UQ is leading the world in scramjet technology, having received roughly $70 million of support from the Australian and Queensland Governments during the past 30 years. The commercial success of the SPARTAN small satellite launch capability would deliver rich rewards in the international high-tech space sector, including recognition as a genuine player in the field and offering bright young engineers the jobs they deserve.

How does SPARTAN work?

The SPARTAN three-stage system takes off vertically under the power of two first-stage boosters. These booster 'modules' use standard rocket engines, and speed the scramjet-powered second-stage aircraft to its mach 5 take-over speed. Once the boosters have finished their job, however, some magic happens.

Instead of falling into the sea, the boosters transform into light aircraft.

First they undergo a controlled re-entry, slowing down to around 150 kilometres per hour. Then they deploy a wing and propeller motor. Once this has been accomplished, each booster then simply turns around and flies back to the launch site, ready to be re-fuelled and flown again.

While this is occurring, the real job of satellite launch continues, with the SPARTAN hypersonic aircraft accelerating to mach 10 – more than 12,000 kilometres per hour – under scramjet power.

The skin of the SPARTAN becomes red hot – up to 2000 degrees Celsius. Modern high-temperature composites must be used for the outer shell and the scramjet to accomplish this.

During the four-minute acceleration, the small third-stage rocket and satellite is protected from the hypersonic environment, nested on the scramjet’s back. At mach 10 the scramjet has done its job, and the third-stage rocket blasts away, taking the 100-kilogram satellite up to its required orbit.

The scramjet-powered vehicle then turns for home, cruising back to the launch site and then gliding in to land. The third stage rocket is the only part of the system that does not return to be used again.

UQ joins forces with Boeing

In 2017, The University of Queensland’s world-class researchers in engineering, mathematics, neuroscience, chemistry, physics, psychology and human movement have cemented their partnership with aerospace giant Boeing.

UQ students will have the opportunity to work on cutting-edge aviation technology, plus attend workshops and lectures from Boeing staff including Christopher Ferguson, former NASA astronaut and director of crew and mission operations for Boeing's CST-100 Starliner program.


 Are you considering your study options?

Find out more about how you can work on pioneering technology with some of the world's biggest companies as a student at UQ. Come to the UQ Information Day in New Delhi or Mumbai to explore your study options at one of Australia’s leading Group of Eight universities.

Speak to university professional and academic staff, explore our wide range of exciting programs, find out more about entry requirements and potential scholarship opportunities and see where UQ can lead you next.

UQ Information Day in India


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