WASHINGTON — A long-awaited test of an Australian supersonic combustion ramjet, or scramjet, engine ended in failure Sept. 18 when the rocket carrying the experiment was unable to reach the proper altitude.

According to a press release issued by the University of Queensland, which was leading the project, the two-stage sounding rocket carrying the Scramspace-1 experiment lifted off from Norway’s Andoya Rocket Range but failed to reach the altitude necessary for the experiment to begin.

“The Scramspace payload, according to our data, was operating perfectly and performed extremely well before and during the launch, and we received telemetry data all the way into the water,” project director Russell Boyce, of the University of Queensland, said in a prepared statement. “Unfortunately the failed launch meant we could not carry out the experiment as planned.” 

The experiment was three years in the making and cost 14 million Australian dollars ($13 million), which was provided by the Australian Space Research Program. The launch mishap is under investigation, the press release said.

Featuring a Brazilian first stage and a U.S.-supplied Orion second stage, the sounding rocket was supposed to have carried the Scramspace engine to an altitude of 340 kilometers, according to information posted on the University of Queensland’s website. From there the air-breathing scramjet was to reorient itself, ignite and accelerate to Mach 8, or 8,600 kilometers per hour, on a downward trajectory, providing three seconds of data before crashing into the ocean.

“The team is very disappointed,” Royce said. “The project represents a lot of time, effort and money by a committed consortium of partners and sponsors.”

In addition to the University of Queensland’s Hypersonics Research Centre, the Scramspace team included BAE Systems along with partners from several other companies and countries. The German Aerospace Center, DLR, provided the launch.

Boyce sought to put a positive spin on the mishap, noting the successes the program has achieved to date. “We set out to create a highly skilled talent pool of scientists, engineers and researchers, and to establish international credibility. We have done both of these in spades,” he said.

Scramspace was the latest in a series of Australian experiments with scramjet engines, which are viewed by some as one of the keys to low-cost access to space. Scramjets draw the oxygen needed for combustion directly from the atmosphere, whereas conventional rocket engines must carry their own oxidizer, adding considerably to vehicle weight.

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the spacenews.com Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...