Australian Startup Scores Big U.S. Hypersonics Contract

By Stew Magnuson

Hypersonix Launch Systems illustration

GEELONG, Australia — The Defense Innovation Unit chose four-year-old Australian startup Hypersonix Launch Systems for its highly competitive Hypersonic and High-Cadence Airborne Testing Capabilities, or HyCAT, program.

DIU selected Hypersonix from 63 respondents to the agency’s September 2022 HyCAT solicitation seeking vehicles usable for high-cadence, long endurance testing of: hypersonic platforms and components; sensors for detecting and tracking; and systems for communications, navigation, guidance and control, a statement said.

It was a big win for a non-U.S.-based contractor.

The company was founded in 2019 by former classmates and engineers Michael Smart, the chief technology officer, and managing director David Waterhouse, said Nina Patz, head of marketing and business development for the company, prior to the announcement in an interview at Avalon — The Australian Air Show.

Smart was working on scramjet engines with NASA until 2004, when the United States all but abandoned hypersonics research. He returned to Australia to teach the subject at the university level for 15 years while working on his concept for his Spartan scramjet engine. Waterhouse was a satellite engineer prior to joining the company.

DIU requested a vehicle capable of operating in a “representative environment” that can maintain speeds greater than Mach 5 with a maneuverable/non-ballistic flight profile and at least a three-minute flight duration with near-constant flight conditions. DIU also wants the flights to be repeated at short intervals, a company statement said.

A scramjet engine relies on supersonic speeds to compress and ignite fuel. The Hypersonix Spartan engine is part of the entirely 3D-printed Dart-AE hypersonic aircraft, Patz said. It can go as fast as Mach 7, which exceeds the DIU specifications.

Deepak Basra, head of the company’s U.S. division, said except for the electronics, the engine and vehicle are all 3D printed using Inconel, a patented nickel-chromium-based super alloy produced by U.S.-based Special Metals Corp. The alloy has been used in many rocket programs, he added.

Another unique characteristic of the DART-AE compared to other scramjet-based vehicles is that it runs on “green” hydrogen fuel rather than kerosene, she said. Hydrogen is self-igniting, she noted.

Kerosene fuels are not self-igniting, “so you’ve got one chance for them to light or not. And at $1.2 billion a launch, that's very expensive,” she said. Hydrogen allows the engine to be turned on and off during flight — meaning it can slow down, then go faster — another unique characteristic that could make the vehicle harder to track, she said.

Hypersonix already had three test flights planned — two in the United States and one in Australia — beginning in 2024, and all taking place within 18 months, Patz said. The company is still seeking a launch provider, she added.

The three-meter-long vehicle currently must be launched on a rocket and then glides back to Earth, reaching its high speeds. It has a 620-mile range and 400-second flight time, a statement said. DART-AE also has a modular payload bay that can carry up to 20 pounds.

The company is exploring other ways to launch and recover the vehicle as well. It’s too small to have landing gear, so engineers are looking at “catching it” or parachutes, she said.

“This is our first major contract and a key step in our commercialization process — we couldn’t be happier. This puts Australia one step closer to being a major player in the international space race,” Waterhouse said in a statement.

“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 defense allies see immediate potential in our technology,” he added.

The Australia-United Kingdom-United States, or AUKUS, agreement, which would have the three nations build nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, also calls for cooperation in a host of emerging technologies, including hypersonics.

Australia and the United States are already partners in developing an air-launched hypersonic cruise missile under the Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment, or SCIFiRE, program, which is a Mach 5-class precision strike missile that is propulsion-launched and powered by an air-breathing scramjet engine.

Topics: Emerging Technologies

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