Podcast: Dr Michael Smart, Hypersonix Launch Systems


In this month’s podcast we preview our forthcoming event London to Sydney in Five Hours: The Future of Aviation by talking to one of the speakers – Dr Michael Smart, head of research and co-founder of Hypersonix Launch Systems.

Dr Smart is one of the world’s leading experts in scramjet technology and for 10 years was a research scientist at the Hypersonic Airbreathing Propulsion Branch of NASA’s Langley Research Center. He was also professor and chair of hypersonic propulsion at the University of Queensland in Australia.

This a great discussion about hypersonic propulsion, the technology that is enabling advances now and the challenges it poses for engineers.

London to Sydney in Five Hours: The Future of Aviation is co-located with the first Aerospace Testing Symposium. Both are being held in London on the 29th and 30th of September. The conferences will also be available online if you can’t make it to London.



Ben Sampson  0:12

Hello, and thanks for downloading the aerospace testing podcast I’m ATI’s editor Ben Sampson. And in this month’s podcast I talked to Dr. Michael Smart head of research and co founder of Hypersonix, the Australia based developer of hypersonic vehicles and scramjet engines.

Dr. Smart is one of the world’s leading experts in scramjet technology, and for 10 years was a research scientist at the hypersonic air breathing propulsion branch of NASA’s Langley Research Centre. He’s also been Professor and Chair of hypersonic propulsion at the University of Queensland in Australia. This is a great chat and introduction to hypersonic technology. Dr. Smart has a great way of explaining complex things simply had real infectious enthusiasm for his area.

So I just like to take this opportunity to tell you about our conference, which is being held in a few months time and which Dr. Smart will be speaking at. It’s called London to Sydney in five hours. And it’s all about supersonic and hypersonic technology and testing. And yes, it is a real life event, London to Sydney in five hours is being co located with our first aerospace testing symposium in London on the 29th and 30th of September. And if you can’t make it to London, the conferences will also be available online. There are more than 50 speakers at both events, which will also feature panel sessions and an exhibition from the industry leading testing products and service suppliers. It’s our launch event. So if you’d like to join hundreds of other industry professionals, or just want to look at the program and get some more information, please go to symposium.aerospacetestinginternational.com or contact anna.young@markallengroup.com. I’ll say that again its symposium.aerospacetestinginternational.com or anna.young@markallengroup.com. So thanks for bearing with me during the lengthy intro. And let’s get on with the chat.

Hello Michael Smart, Dr. Michael Smart, CTO of hypersonics. Founded in 2019, thanks for taking the time out joining me from Australia.


Michael Smart  2:20

No worries, Ben, good to talk to you. Great. Thanks.


Ben Sampson  2:23

Could you just tell me a little bit about about yourself and the company and what you’re doing?


Michael Smart  2:28

Yes, so Hypersonix launch systems is no other company. We’re a startup here and situated in Brisbane, Australia. We also have a business office in Sydney. And what we’re doing is building scramjet engines. That’s our core capability that we have that we’re we’re leading the marketplace. And so scramjet engine is a hypersonic air breathing engine. So it’s everything engine like a jet engine. So we use the air to generate thrust, we use the oxygen from the air rather than having to carry an oxidizer like a rocket does. So all we carry is fuel. But a scramjet is designed to work at hypersonic speed. So instead of having lots of turbo machinery, like a jet engine has for compression, and other things, we use shockwaves. And so our system doesn’t have any moving parts, actually, our particular scramjet engine has no moving parts whatsoever. So in many ways, it’s it’s quite simple. However, it operates at hypersonic speed. And so it has all the challenges of very, very high speed flight.


Ben Sampson  3:37

Okay, now a common thing for the interviewer to say here is to say that hypersonic, is not that new. That it’s been around for a while, right. So what’s what’s different about about your, your engine? I think it’s called Spartan, right? And what are the sort of key technologies?


Michael Smart  3:52

So, yeah, so hypersonic technology has been around since the space age, right. So in order for a rocket to get into space it has to go hypersonic.

But when people talk about hypersonics, what they’re really talking about is very, very high speed flight in the atmosphere, where you have to deal with the fact that you’ve got to push the air out of the way. And you’ve got to rub up against the air at very, very high speed, which generates heat. So you have to deal with shockwaves and then you have to deal with the heat that’s generated. And what’s different about our technology is we’re using what we’re developing propulsion at hypersonic speeds. So we don’t just have a big rocket that pushes us along at hypersonic speed and we have to deal with the friction, etc. We’re actually using the air to generate propulsion. And hopefully, if we do our job, right, we generate more thrust than drag and we can accelerate. And so that’s the real difference. And so, when we say we that our Spartan engine is a hypersonic airbreathing engine – it captures air, which we have to do very, very efficiently. Otherwise, we’ll create too much drag. We then have to mix unburned fuel with that air which, and we use hydrogen for very specific reason for that. And then we added energy. And then we have to expand the air through the goes out the back of our engine faster than it came in. And so once we do that, like change the momentum of a flow of fluid that generates our thrust. So that’s the real difference that’s going on right now as people are talking about hypersonic propulsion.


Ben Sampson  5:35

Yeah. Whereas  the TEDx talk that I just watched part of you talking about you talking about Apollo 11? That’s a one one shot deal, right? It’s quite crude. Okay, sure. So this this ongoing propulsion that you’re talking about, I mean, what are they? Are there key advances in materials technology, or aerodynamics, or design that are really underpinning what you’re able to achieve at the moment?


Michael Smart  6:00

Yeah, definitely, definitely been. So this, this three sorts of technologies that have come together that which really enabled us to create a working engine that could that could be part of a real system. The first one is, is computational power, like, it’s just amazing what we can simulate nowadays. And there’s a significant amount of simulation that we do to design our vehicle. In the end, we do experiments, but it’s really simple. We use the simulation, not to necessarily to analyse what goes on, but to design. So to design a system that can survive flying at Mach 10, we do a lot of simulation. So that’s one of the things that’s really come along. And that’s true of many industries, right making use of simulation. The second key thing that’s come along is high temperature composite materials. So these are composites that are laid up just like you making a surfboard or some other a wing, some other component. But through another few extra steps of processing, they can actually operate at very, very high temperatures, temperatures of the order of 1500 degrees Celsius. And would like if you had to look at a plate that was that hot, like you couldn’t look at it, you’d have to have your hands in the way and burn your face, like it was seriously hot materials. And they can be used again and again and again without any damage. So that is just absolutely amazing. Now, those materials are called ceramics matrix composites, they have been developed for like turbine blades for aircraft. But the real thing has come along like in the last they’ve been around for a while in flat plate type shapes. But what’s really changed in the last five years, I would say is we can make our entire scramjet out of these materials. So our scramjet is not flat. It’s a very curved shape. It’s quite big. And we’re able to manufacture real aerodynamic components out of these ceramic matrix composites. So that’s technology that’s really come along. And that has brought up applications not just to hypersonic flight, but anywhere you have very, very high temperatures. And the third thing has come along which what we sort of didn’t expect so much is this real emphasis on the hydrogen economy. So hydrogen is really been looked at over the last 10 or 12 years as as a automotive fuel, but also as a different energy source. And there’s been a lot of technology that’s been developed for automotive applications in hydrogen, enormously high pressure, gaseous tanks that can be used  by buses and cars on the road. Liquid hydrogen tanks, the ability to handle hydrogen, the ability to create green hydrogen, so using solar energy to break down water and create green hydrogen. So those three sorts of quite different technologies to really come together for us. And then we’ve developed our own very unique scramjet engine Spartan, which uses hydrogen fuel. But through a lotmore than 30 years of research here in Australia, we’ve developed a scramjet that can accelerate from Mach five to Mach 10. And when you’re travelling hypersonic, that’s a massive range of operation. There’s no other scramjet out there that has that sort of range of operation. And so that’s what’s really unique about like those other three technologies are available to other people just like us, right? But the really unique thing that we’ve done is we’ve – through a lot of a lot of research, a lot of government investment here in Australia, we’ve developed this world leading scramjet engine. And yeah, and just another thing about it is because how scramjet are accelerating, they’re really, the real application for them is as a hypersonic platform, so a vehicle that it’s used many, many times over. It’s not like a one-use system, a lot of scramjet work that’s done all over the world at the moment are one-use systems, if you know what I mean. But our system, we are able to really make an expensive system because it’s going to be used many, many times over. And so our aircraft, our Delta-Velos aircraft, which is powered by the Spartan scramjet, once it’s done its mission it can come back and land just like a normal plane. So that’s really key to to our business model and everything that we do


Ben Sampson 11:03

That was my next question, actually, Michael, the the Delta-Velos Orbiter, I mean, that , obviously, is going to be quite further down the line, you need the engine first, right? I mean, are you still at the design stage with that?


Michael Smart  11:19

So what we’re doing  with the engine is that it has been developed over many years, but as well as doing research on engines, we’ve learned a lot about hypersonic vehicles, as well. And so what we are doing in the company is we’re building a, an MVP, so a minimum viable product, which is our Delta-velos, which is a is a reusable, hypersonic aircraft. It has  ailerons, moving tails, all the sorts of things that would be on any small aircraft., It’s fully autonomous and it’s about six metres long. So it’s actually a the minimum size that we could do a useful, commercial productive mission with. And the whole focus of the company right now is to build a prototype of Delta-Velos, we’re deep in the design phase right now. And then take that and go and fly it, and not just fly it once but fly it twice, because the whole point of our system is it flies back – it’s reusable. So our goal is to fly it twice. And that’s the plan that we’re on. And over the next, well our plan says 28 months from now, we will do that flight. So that’s sort of the timing of everything that we’re doing.


Ben Sampson 12:51

28 months is pretty is pretty quick. Yeah, I mean, just for the benefit of the listeners, could you describe the design of the Delta Velos? Is there an inspiration behind it? I mean, what’s the key elements of the design?


Michael Smart  13:07

Yeah, so it’s, it’s a hypersonic aircraft. So think, think of Concorde on steroids. So that’s, that’s what it will look like. It doesn’t have as big as wings as Concorde because when you’re travelling hypersonic, you’re generating so much pressure on your surface, the surfaces of your vehicle, you don’t need a lot of wing. I don’t know, listeners might know  the X 15. So that was the rocket plane from the 60s. That was a hypersonic aircraft as well. And it came back and landed and did 199 missions. There was I think three vehicles. So that’s sort of our inspiration as well. And yeah, so that’s, so that’s what we’re trying to do. A hypersonic aircraft.


Ben Sampson  13:52

So before we talk about that, where you are in the testing and development of Spartan just created, could you just describe to me the applications that you have in mind you talking about how far, if you’re going all the way to space and taking passengers and cargo  up beyond the atmosphere? What’s the kind of use case?


Michael Smart  14:11

Yeah, so the real use case that is, interestingly is easiest, is as part of a reusable small sat launch system. So all the small sat launch systems, that fly right now they are all one use, right? So point and shoot, one use, and they have these enormously long supply chains to build because they’re throwing them away. So our system is designed to be a part of a fully reusable, small satellite launch system because it’s reusable will be more economic than throwing things away, but it will also be able to be quite responsive. So it will sort of be sitting in the garage waiting to go. And there’s a lot of interest now on responsive access to space. So historically you plan two years ahead for a space launch and everything, they build everything, they put it together, and then they launch it. But if you’ve got a system that’s just sitting there waiting to go and say, one of a key satellite that’s used for imagery or, or part of a commercial communication system goes out, like we can be, we can put it up two weeks later. So that’s really the main short term application for our technology. It’s re-usable space launch. Now in the longer run, the scramjet engines are reusable and can be thought of as a propulsion system for airlines. But they do have the limitation that  they don’t work until you get to Mach five. So there’s another propulsion system required. And there’s lots of work going on, in different places about how to develop, essentially, a jet engine that can operate from zero to Mach five. And once that technology is in place, then the scramjet can enable you to go to Mach seven Mach eight and can be part of an airline system. But the thing about developing aircraft for people is people like to watch movies, they like to survive, they like oxygen. So there’s a lot of tech that needs to be added to the propulsion system in order to make something that you or I would want to fly on.


Ben Sampson  16:49

Yeah, way down the line. Yeah, I guess. So let’s let’s talk about where you are at with the testing, what you’re actually doing. You mentioned that the computer simulation and that a lot of the design work, of course, and and then you reach a stage where you have to start validating stuff, start actually doing some physical experimentation. I mean, where are you at the moment and what’s the next kind of big milestone you’re looking at?


Michael Smart  17:16

Yeah, so we where we are now is we have our Spartan scramjet design. And at the start of this year during February and March, we did a series of 111 experiments in a hypersonic wind tunnel at the University of Queensland. And this unit, this facility, it’s called a three piston shock tunnel, it’s able to recreate the exact conditions of flight of the scramjet engine, all the way from Mach five to Mach 10, not in the same experiment. So we will do an experiment at Mach five and then one at Mach six, all the way to Mach 10 with different fuelling configurations. And it was really a flight qualification tests for us. So we knew the sort of thrust levels that are required for our system. And we basically went into the wind tunnel to check  that we’re able to do that. And actually, the engine worked better than we had hoped. So we’re extremely pleased about that. The current phases were now manufacturing a working scramjet engine. So we’re using these ceramics matrix composites, where that’s being built. Not in Australia. Unfortunately, that capability isn’t in Australia. So we’re having a manufacturer in Europe. We are building the hydrogen fuel system that we will need at this present time. Our MVP has a hydrogen fuel tank, which is where we store gaseous hydrogen at 700 atmospheres, so 70 Mega Pascals, which is an absolutely enormous pressure. And through lots of work and technology development that has been done in the automotive industry, we are able to fill that tank in five minutes. This refuelling system is almost like magic to someone like myself, an engineer like myself. But it’s designed to pull over on the Autobahn with your car and you plug it into the hydrogen system, and it fills your tank to 700 atmospheres in five minutes. It’s absolutely amazing tech. So at the moment, we’re building our fuel system. And so early next year, we’re going to put the scramjet and the fuel system together. We can’t operate the scramjet at hypersonic speed in the lab. But we’ve already done that. What we’re doing is we’re going to take the fuel system and the scramjet through what’s called hardware in the loop testing. So we’ll run a mock trajectory essentially many times over and look at different problems that we might have and might happen and understand how the system responds. So that’s really our near term goal. And, as I say, in terms of engineering, but in terms of design, we’re heavily, we’re deeply in the stage of designing our Delta-Velos vehicle right now. There’s a lot of thermal analysis that we need, because it gets really hot.


Ben Sampson  20:20

Yeah. Okay. So when you start the hardware in the loop testing next year, I mean, that would that be a fully integrated system? That’s, that would be everything put together or?


Michael Smart  20:31

Yeah, that’s the idea. Yeah, that we, because the part of the funding that we’re using for that is for the Department of industry here in Australia, and its commercialization funding. So essentially, we’re developing an engine system, as an engine that could be used by other companies, for example, to power a hypersonic aircraft. So  that’s really  being developed as a system in itself. But we, of course, want to in order to prove that system works, we need to go and fly it ourselves. And so that’s what the Delta-Velos is about.


Ben Sampson  21:10

Okay. Is there anything else particularly innovative about what you’re doing, perhaps the approach


Michael Smart  21:17

I think, on the space side of things, so I would say that, where we aim to be a new space company, so our core competency that we have that’s ahead of the pack is with our scramjet engines. And so our plan is not to reinvent all the other parts of Delta-Velos that we would need to fly. So we’re going to partner with other high tech companies, maybe small companies like ourselves, to put that whole system together. So we’re not going to reinvent any wheels, we’re going to go to the best in class, and form partnerships to build this Delta-Velos system. So I think that’s actually quite different to lots of the space companies, they’re all very vertically integrated the space companies, they want to make every nut and bolt themselves and every tank and every actuator. Which, of course, they then go and throw away. But because it is very long supply chain, if you have a problem with that supply chain, you’re stuffed. But for us, we’re developing an aircraft. So it’s a completely different business model for the space industry. And I think once we prove this technology, that you can fly to space, I think it’s going to change a lot of the thought processes that go on in the space industry. So we would see ourselves as, as a disrupter to the space industry, a completely different business model. Apart from the technology,that’s a really important thing. I think that we’re trying to do


Ben Sampson  22:54

That fundamental change in the business model. That its one day hypersonic. That kind of idea of reusable vehicles, reaching space, the cost coming down. Do you think that’s a change we’re going to see within within our lifetimes?


Michael Smart  23:09

Definitely, definitely. Yeah. The thing thing about our scramjet technology, is that particularly here in Australia, we’ve been working on it for 30 years and so it’s very mature in itself. And so there’s no new equation, we have to solve, there’s no new technology that we have to add, everything is in place. So we’re we’re planning to be launching small sats with our system five years from now,  that’s the plan. But, that flight of our MVP, 28 months from now, that’s obviously a key technology, hurdle that we need to get past to really prove that we have a working, functioning system.


Ben Sampson  23:57

Okay. Sure. And how about a hypersonic aircraft. I have to ask because the conference is about hypersonic aircraft – London to Sydney, what is it five hours or four hours?


Michael Smart  24:10

London to Sydney would be three hours? Yeah, I think less than three hours possible, probably. It’ll probably take more time getting out of London to Heathrow than taking the flight, but maybe not. But as I said earlier, the technology needs to prove itself with these other applications first.

In engineering, not so much in physics, where you’re coming up with new ideas, but in engineering technologies take steps but they don’t take massive steps. Because you’re not sure where to take that step to. But if you take relatively small steps, you learn a lot, then you go Oh, I know where my next step needs needs to be. And I think that’s what will happen with this hypersonic technology, we can get a system that works for small sats. A system that’s very manoeuvrable, not point and shoot like a standard rocket system, people will come up with new ways of using that. And then if there are other propulsion systems that come along and speed up a bit, then they’ll put the high speed jet engine and the scramjet together, and then we’ll be looking at how to fly Sydney to London in three hours. So I think it’ll be as we move this technology along, it’ll be much clearer about which way is the best way to go.


Ben Sampson  25:39

Great. Okay. I think that’s a great place to finish. So Michael, thank you. Thank you for your time very much. I mean, I agree with you.

So thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed it and maybe learned a thing or two. I certainly did. Remember you can catch Dr Smart at the London to Sydney and Aerospace Testing Symposium in September in London, either in person or online. Go to symposium dot aerospace testing international com for more details and a look at the program and of course the opportunity to register. See you next episode and have a great day.


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About Author


Ben has worked as a journalist and editor, covering technology, engineering and industry for the last 20 years. Initially writing about subjects from nuclear submarines to autonomous cars to future design and manufacturing technologies, he was editor of a leading UK-based engineering magazine before becoming editor of Aerospace Testing in 2017.

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