A re-usable system for launching satellites

Tuesday, 11 August, 2015

The University of Queensland’s (UQ) Centre for Hypersonics is developing a re-usable system that would make it cheaper and easier to launch satellites into space.

The centre’s three-stage transformational space project, SPARTAN, is designed to deliver satellites weighing up to 500 kg into orbit and allow them to be monitored nationally or internationally. Chair of Hypersonic Propulsion Professor Michael Smart explained that the program aims to take advantage of dramatic growth in the small satellite market.

“Currently, there are about 1265 satellites orbiting in space, but the cost to launch a single satellite is astronomical,” Professor Smart said.

“Our project aim is to reduce this cost and make it more economically viable for smaller nations and organisations to launch their own satellites and monitor their own space activity through the development of a re-usable space launch system.”

Stage one of the system consists of an Austral Launch Vehicle (ALV) — a re-usable rocket booster that lifts the upper stages of the rocket to scramjet takeover speed of Mach 5, before flying back to base using wings and propellers. The second-stage SPARTAN scramjet will fly like a plane up to Mach 10 — releasing the final rocket/satellite, which stays in space — before it too returns to base.

The combination of the ALV and SPARTAN allows 95% of the system to be re-usable. The project therefore “has the potential to change the current paradigm of tossing away spacecraft after each launch”, Professor Smart said.

Partnering with Heliaq Advanced Engineering, the UQ team is developing subscale versions of the ALV and SPARTAN as technology demonstrators. It is expected that a subscale demonstrator (ALV-0) with a 3 m wingspan will be flown by the end of 2015.

“It will take off like a normal aircraft, stow the wings and then redeploy them,” Professor Smart said.

“This test flight will focus on the slow speed handling to prove that this prototype can actually work.”

A follow-on rocket-powered demonstrator is also planned, but is still in the funding stages.

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