Queensland Uni launches upgraded wind tunnel to support hypersonics research

Max Blenkin

University of Queensland has upgraded its wind tunnel, which will allow improved testing of larger scale models of hypersonic aircraft and space vehicles at up to seven times the speed of sound.

Queensland Uni launches upgraded wind tunnel to support hypersonics research
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Hypersonics – ultra high speed flight – is an area where Australia has significant advantage, thanks to the work of pioneers such as the late Professor Ray Stalker.

Centre for Hypersonics researcher Dr David Gildfind said UQ’s large expansion tube facility X3, developed by Professor Richard Morgan, can now be reconfigured into a reflected shock tunnel with test time duration in excess of 10 milliseconds.

Dr Gildfind said that might not sound like a long time, but at these speeds, it more than tripled what was now possible within Australia.

“This new addition to our facility will allow us to test the type of vehicles that could one day travel from Australia to Europe in two hours,” he said.

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The reflected shock tunnel operating mode of X3 is known as X3R.

At its heart is a device called a free-piston driver, a concept invented by Professor Stalker.

Within that driver, a half-metre diameter piston weighing more than half a tonne is accelerated down a 14-metre tube to nearly 500 kilometres per hour.

Dr Gildfind said the original X3 configuration was optimised for the most extreme flight speeds imaginable, simulating planetary entry conditions well beyond 40,000 kilometres per hour for about one millisecond.

“With X3R, we operate the machine in a different way, which can extend the test time to over 10 milliseconds,” he said.

“While this restricts the maximum speed to around 8,000 kilometres an hour, it’s this lower speed that will allow us to make big advancements in terrestrial hypersonic flight.”

Dr Gildfind said the exploration of space relied on the ground testing of hypersonic vehicles through facilities like X3 and X3R.

“X3R is a transformational capability improvement for Australia, which makes it possible for researchers to investigate fundamental studies of hypersonic phenomena, of which we historically have a great legacy, at a larger scale,” he said.

“This has only been made possible by combining the expertise and resources of both UQ and the Department of Defence, Science and Technology.”

This development is the latest outcome of long-term collaboration in hypersonics between UQ and DST. That’s covered hypersonic ground and flight testing and the development of transformational flight technologies.

The X3R facility will be relocated to a new DST laboratory at Eagle Farm, Brisbane, in 2019-20, becoming the focal point for national and international research partnerships in Hypersonic Technologies.

“This could lead to significant breakthroughs in hypersonic technologies in Australia, and will provide the vital infrastructure Australia needs to support our burgeoning space industry,” said Dr Gildfind.

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