Australia’s SCRAMSPACE bid to study hypersonic flight with an eye to informing development of Mach 5-plus scramjet-powered vehicles to orbit satellites has generated a big splash but little data – after a launcher failure left the 1.8m spacecraft too low achieve the gravity-powered M8 flight that was to have provided data on hypersonic physics, multi-Mach fuel injection and materials performance.

As planned, the three-year, A$14 million project – whose funding included A$5m from the Australian government – will end this year. What bearing its failure to end with a data trove will have on Australian ambitions for scramjet flight remains to be seen, but the government’s space research programme office is billing it as “highly successful” in achieving its aim of building “human capacity and capability for Australia’s aerospace (especially space) sector”.

Following its 19 September launch from Norway’s Andoya Rocket Range, 300km inside the Arctic circle, the missile-shaped and highly instrumented SCRAMSPACE should have reached an altitude of 320km powered by a two-stage rocket. The plan was for the vehicle, after separating from the launcher, to orient itself with small thrusters for a gravity-powered re-entry plunge that would take it to M8, or 8,600km/h.

On the way down, the vehicle was to test a hydrogen fuel injection system and transmit data for 3s before self-destructing over the sea. But the rocket never reached altitude, so while telemetry data was received “all the way into the water…we could not carry out the experiment as planned,” said professor Russell Boyce, SCRAMSPACE director and hypersonics chair at the University of Queensland.

The payload had included ultra-high temperature ceramic components from CIRA and a high temperature carbon-fibre thrust nozzle from Teakle Composites to test their performance and a laser flight instrument. Ahead of the launch, research had been conducted in the University of Queensland’s T4 shock tunnel and large shock tunnels at DLR in Germany and JAXA in Japan, while ground tests were performed in the university’s hypersonic wind tunnel and in a plasma hypersonic wind tunnel at CIRA in Naples.

An investigation has been launched into the failure.