US embraces all its allies to help it compete against China and Russia in hypersonic research

Australia’s hypersonic space plane is getting a New Zealand ride with the team behind the project hoping its fast enough to catch the Chinese and Russians.

Hypersonix Launch Systems is nearing the completion of its first DART-AE drone prototype, and the US subsidiary of NZ-based Rocket Lab is adapting its Electron rocket to boost it to Mach 5 (6125km/h) and beyond.

The modified rocket will carry the spacecraft high into the atmosphere at a sufficient speed for the DART AE to ignite its scramjet engine. From there, the hypersonic prototype will demonstrate its ability to engage in controlled flight at speeds up to Mach 7 (8644km/h) for the United States Defence Innovation Unit (DUI).

The mission has a targeted launch date of early next year.

Brisbane-based Hypersonix is one of 63 international aerospace companies contracted by the DUI in a bid to catch up with Chinese and Russian advances in hypersonic technology.

The Hypersonic and High-Cadence Airborne Testing Capabilities (HyCAT) project will choose a vehicle capable of sustaining speeds in excess of Mach 5 for at least three minutes to test new technology systems, including communications, navigation, guidance and flight control.

The 3D-printed SPARTAN scramjet engine that is the heart of the DART-AE hypersonic drone prototype. Picture: HYPERSONIX

The first Hypersonix prototype will demonstrate the ability of its oxygen-breathing, hydrogen-fuelled, 3D-printed scramjet to shut down and restart multiple times over a 1000km flight. The craft will also carry flight data sensors and recorders to measure the effects of friction and airflow at high speeds.

“Our vehicles are capable of non-ballistic flight patterns to at least Mach 7, which exceeds the HyCAT specification,” says Hypersonix Launch Systems managing director David Waterhouse.

But first, it has to get to Mach 5 for the scramjet to get a “push start”.

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That’s where Rocket Lab’s HASTE Electron rocket comes in. “It’s taking an Electron, making a couple of wee tweaks to it, and all of a sudden, we have this great high-frequency hypersonic testing platform that hasn’t existed before,” Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck told US media last week.

From left to right: David Waterhouse, CEO Hypersonix USA, and Peter Beck, CEO Rocket Lab USA

This will:“…safely bring DART AE to its initial operating speed, allowing DART AE to demonstrate its non-ballistic flight patterns,” Waterhouse explains.

Beck says his company has been working with Hypersonix since 2020. Their new formal partnership aims to “deliver highly capable, frequent, and cost-effective hypersonic and suborbital test opportunities.” Ultimately, Hypersonix intends its craft will help satisfy a commercial demand for rapid, accurate small-satellite orbital deployment. “But clearly, Australia’s strategic defence allies see immediate potential in our technology,” Waterhouse adds

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