LONDON, Sept 26 (Reuters) - This time next year, British fighter pilot Andy Green will strap himself into a rocket-powered car for test runs in a bid to accelerate to 1,000 miles per hour (1,600 kilometers per hour) and smash his own land speed record.
That’s the plan. In the meantime, the team building the Bloodhound supersonic car faces a milestone on Oct. 3 - they will test-fire the rocket they hope will push it through the sound barrier and well past the existing record of 763 mph set 15 years ago.
It will be the biggest rocket test in Britain for about 20 years and will bring together the components of the rocket, including a Cosworth Formula One engine that will be used just to pump fuel into the combustion chamber.
“This is the first time we have brought all the elements together,” said Mark Chapman, the project’s chief engineer who has a background in aerospace design that included work on the Joint Strike Fighter.
Chapman said a flawless test run would be the best outcome next week but an explosion that provides lessons and drives design improvements would also be counted a success.
“The worst thing that could happen is for nothing to happen,” he told reporters.
The rocket will be tested in a bomb-proof military hangar at Newquay airport in southwest England with the team in a control room 250 metres away.
Dan Jubb, the project’s 28-year-old self-taught rocket engineer who sports an impressive handlebar moustache, said the team will leave the doors on the test hangar slightly ajar in case there is an explosion.
“Evidence from the past, when bits of ordnance have gone off unexpectedly, suggests it does have a tendency to blow the doors off,” he said.
The rocket will be run at a third of its full capacity of 27,500 pounds of thrust, equivalent to 80,000 horsepower - or the combined output of 95 Formula One cars.
Subsequent tests running through spring next year will gradually ramp up the power.
Bloodhound will attack 1,000 mph on a dry lake bed called Hakskeen Pan in South Africa’s Northern Cape region in 2014, using a jet engine from a Eurofighter Typhoon on loan from Britain’s Ministry of Defence, coupled with the hybrid rocket that will use a mix of solid and liquid fuel.
The race for the land speed record is hotting up again after a 15-year lull following Andy Green’s 1997 record in Thrust SSC, and rivals are nipping at Bloodhounds heels.
The North American Eagle project in the United States has a car its volunteer team believes will break the existing record and could do that before Bloodhound is driven at full speed.
The Aussie Invader project led by Rosco McGlashan is more ambitious, with a target of 1,000 mph in a rocket car that runs on liquid oxygen and bio-kerosene to produce about 200,000 horsepower. The Australians are also aiming for 2013/14.
From New Zealand, the Jet Black team also has its hat in the ring with a jet engine and hybrid rocket combination, like Bloodhound.
Three people in the Bloodhound bid cut their teeth on the Thrust SSC project; driver Green, Scottish entrepreneur Richard Noble, who himself held the land speed record from 1983 to 1997, and aerodynamics specialist Ron Ayers.
Dan Jubb, whose entry in the qualifications section of his profile on the Bloodhound website reads “none”, says the truly new part of his rocket design is in the way it burns the synthetic rubber solid fuel inside.
The liquid fuel, High Test Peroxide (HTP), burns hotter as it travels down the length of the tube, which means the solid fuel in most hybrid rockets burns more quickly towards the rear end.
Jubb has designed a solid fuel mix with a secret ingredient that produces a more even burn, increasing the efficiency of the rocket. He said commercial space flight companies have expressed interest in the technology, but declined to name them.
Pio Szyjanowicz, a spokesman for Cosworth, said Bloodhound is “a mash-up of different technologies” that has provided some useful feedback into the company’s aerospace division.
The pump, which is driven by Cosworth’s Formula One engine to fire the liquid fuel into the rocket, is a modified version of one from a 1960s Blue Steel cruise missile.
“There have been some interesting bits of know-how in how to drive the pump,” Szyjanowicz told Reuters, adding that working out how to control the pump and the “interesting torque demands” have informed the company’s business that makes pumps for raising and lowering landing gear on planes.
It’s easy to imagine that Andy Green will simply be a passenger once Bloodhound’s engines light up and send it hurtling down the 12-mile course.
But the team say the forces on the car mean driving it will require immense skill. It will take 15 seconds to reach 100 mph but then just 25 seconds to go from 100 mph to 1,000 mph.
“Bloodhound will slide all the way down the track and at 1,000 mph it will be more like a boat with the front wheels acting like rudders,” said Knight.
Those forces call for extreme attention to detail in the design. Even a variation in the thickness of the paintwork could cause an asymmetric shockwave which could make the car veer dangerously.
The lake-bed track requires the same level of attention. Its 19-km (12-mile) length is being cleared of about 6,000 tonnes of stones. It is also 500 metres (1,650 feet) wide since the car’s metal wheels will cut ruts so each track can only be used once.
So why has the Thrust SSC record stood for so long? “We moved the bar too high,” said Bloodhound spokesman Richard Knight. “Every mile an hour beyond the supersonic record is uncharted territory. It’s ‘here be dragons’”.