Archive for the ‘Engineering’ Category

The 2011 World Solar Challenge has been run and won

October 20, 2011

They started under clear skies and blazing heat and finished in steady rain, but the winner of the 2011 World Solar Challenge has been decided. After 4 days of travelling, Tokai University (Japan) crossed the finishing line north of Adelaide today in the lead.

Tokai University's car crossing the line surrounded by team members

In the closest finish in the history of the WSC, mere minutes separated Tokai and second placed Nuon Solar Team from the Netherlands. Third placegetters University of Michigan (USA) were themselves only a short distance behind. The close finish is remarkable given the distance travelled and time spent on the road. Ashiya University, of Japan, and Team Twente, also of the Netherlands, are further behind vying for fourth place and expected to finish Friday, as is Team Aurora of Australia, not far behind Ashiya and Twente.

The World Solar Challenge is an epic 3000km solar car challenge, running down the length of Australia from Darwin to Adelaide. With unlimited regulations it is likely all the cars would be able to exceed the road speed limit and run for extended periods of time. Instead, the regulations deliberately limit battery sizes and solar collection area to prevent the ability for the cars to run at maximum speed for hours on end and hence to help promote the development of more efficient solar collector units and motors.

The main differentiator between the cars is the ability of the solar cells to collect energy from the sun and convert it into electricity. With limited battery sizes, the energy which can be held on board the car isn’t enough to allow unrestricted running. Instead, the speed of the car is dictated by the combination of the amount of energy being collected from the solar panels, and the efficiency of the motor using that energy. The faster a car runs, the more energy it uses and hence the more energy it needs to collect to replace that used. Quite simply, if a car’s solar panels aren’t efficient in collecting energy to replace that being used, the car will run out of electricity. So a balance needs to be found between energy collection and expenditure, with cars more efficient at collecting and using energy able to run at higher speeds.

Further adding to the challenge, running of the cars is restricted to certain hours of the day, with cars required to hold at positions overnight. To ensure that the cars do maintain these hold positions, and stay within the legal speed limits, a sophisticated tracking system is employed to monitor the progress of each team. This ‘Mission Control’ was this year based in the Science Exchange in Adelaide.

This year’s race was never going to break any records with the challenge suspended for several hours due to bushfires close to the race route. There was also another dramatic development on day 4 when a car from Team Philippines, having been parked for repairs to its battery system, suffered an explosion in its battery packs. Thankfully, no one was injured.

Another challenge faced by the teams competing in the World Solar Challenge are the outsized road trains which Australian highways are famous for. These extremely long and wide trucks normally require traffic coming the other way to pull off the highway to allow the truck to pass. However, according to Bruno Moorthamers from Nuon in an interview with The Register, a solar car’s steering doesn’t allow this manoeuvre. Instead, Bruno said he has to drive “a little under” the overhanging loads of the trucks.

Despite crossing the official finishing line Thursday afternoon, a late developing fault meant that Nuon would not enter Adelaide city until the following day, meaning that celebrations in the Victoria Square ceremonial finishing line were reserved for Tokai. Dutch supporter groups hoping to cheer home Nuon and Twente were left instead to congratulate the victorious team and wait for their teams to arrive on the Friday. Tokai certainly celebrated in the rain, and definitely showed their excitement at having won such a hard-fought challenge.

Tokai team members celebrating at the finish

Celebrating with sake

Zoz Brooks from the Discovery Channel meets the driver who brought the Tokai car across the line.

The winning Tokai University team

The team celebrates by jumping into the Victoria Square fountain.

The Tokai team congratulate each other

Team Twente supporters at the finishing line

Supporters of Nuon Solar Team at the finishing line

Tokai celebrate in the Victoria Square fountain

Getting the sustainability message out through film

August 21, 2011

Over the past few weeks I’ve been involved in the organisation of public screenings for the 2011 SCINEMA Festival of Science Film.  The festival showcases science dramas, docos, animations and shorts, and in 2011 SCINEMA received over 400 entries from 35 countries including entries from professional filmmakers, amateurs, and student-groups, making it one of the foremost science film festivals in the world.

For me three films in particular stood out, and this blog post is based on their message – that we are way too wasteful, and unless things change things are going to get far worse.  Worse not only in terms of resource availability, but also in an economic sense that we’re getting ripped off by some very shrewd business people.

It is no secret that we are a wasteful society.  Humans now produce more waste than ever before, and while much of this can be recycled and reused, much is not.  Take for example metal, and iron in particular.  In 2008 the worldwide crude metal consumption was 1.4 billion tons, twice what it was in the 1970’s and nearly seven times the level of the 1950’s.  That makes sense, populations are increasing and just from an infrastructure point of view more metal needs to be used to support these increases.  However, despite the fact that metals can be recycled indefinitely around 70% of metals are used only once then discarded.  As a result of this rate, after 5 cycles only 0.25% of metal is still in circulation.  The rest forms the billions of tons of scrap metal around the world.

Such is the extent of our disposal of metal, we throw away enough iron and steel to supply all the carmakers in the world on a continuous bases.  Aluminium however – Americans dispose of enough to be able to rebuild their air force every 3 months.  When looking at environmental and energy efficiency, aluminium which is recycled uses 95% less energy than making the metal from scratch, meaning 20 aluminium cans can be made from recycled material for the energy cost of a single can being made from new material.

Taking all that into account, surely it makes sense to recycle metals more than we currently are. It doesn’t make sense to keep mining and refining all this metal given we already have so much available and able to be reused.

But why is our consumption increasing so quickly? Well partially it is a result of planned obsolescence.  Believe it or not, the lifespan of a light bulb in 1920 was longer than it was in 1950.  The humble light bulb was the originator of planned obsolescence, when manufacturers make products wear out quickly so that people have to purchase more.  In fact during the 1920’s and 30’s, there was an international cartel of light bulb manufacturers who banded together and deliberately set a limit on the lifespan of the light bulb for this very purpose.  Should any of the member companies exceed this life span they were fined heavily.  This cartel also controlled distribution and sales, increasing prices and ensuring competitors would not gain market share.

There is another type of planned obsolescence though, not through technical means like artificially shortening lifespans, but through marketing means.  Quite often manufacturers seem to release new model products with little or no improvement over the outgoing model, and through marketing convince the consumer they need to upgrade to this newer product.

This is done purely for economic purposes, to boost sales and company income.  However it has the flipside of increasing the production of waste.

So what can we do about increasing recycling?  It requires both an industry action to reuse more metals in manufacturing processes, and also consumer action to recycle and provide more access to materials which can be recycled.  In Australia only around 50% of recyclable waste is actually recycled.  However, in South Australia that level is closer to 80%, with the reason being that SA has a recycling deposit scheme – consumers are paid to recycle.  Manufacturers have previously fought against such schemes, and recently when SA increased their scheme several multi-national companies resisted the move.  However, it cannot be argued that providing a minor incentive does improve public behaviour.  50% of our recyclable waste is a considerable amount of needless landfill. Surely being smarter about what we throw away is only a benefit?

We as people can do so much to reduce consumption and landfill.  Just improving our own recycling and disposal of goods can make a huge difference, and it takes minimal effort and little or no cost.  But increasing sustainability can also go beyond just what we throw away, and again it is only beneficial.  Growing a small amount of vegetables or herbs will be cheaper than buying them from the supermarket, and will probably be tastier too, while the effort to maintain them will probably be less than having to duck out to the supermarket when you realise you’ve forgotten to buy something.

The public can make a significant effort through making basic changes to our lifestyles.  However these changes won’t take us backwards, in fact they’ll take us forward into a society where we have the same quality of life but produce less waste and spend less money.  Surely that is an improvement.

So which three films from SCINEMA did I find particularly interesting and were the inspiration for this blog post?

The winner of the 2011 SCINEMA Best Film was The Light Bulb Conspiracy, by Cosima Dannoritzer of-Spain.  An investigative piece, LBC details how “planned obsolescence” is incorporated into just about every product we buy.  This includes not only a technical planned obsolescence – where products deliberately have a limited lifespan to make customers purchase more and more products, but also a psychological planned obsolescence, where customers are induced to buy the newest product, despite being in some cases no better than their old product.

Going right back to the 1920’s and using the humble light bulb as an example, LBC follows planned obsolescence throughout its history, and shows how manufacturers are contributing to the wastefulness of society solely to make money, including revealing insights from one of the Philips family members – the family which established the Philips electrical goods manufacturers.  But, as LBC shows, the public is starting to fight back.


Despite not winning any prizes, Waste Not by Ruth Hessey of Australia, is a fantastic film about recycling and sustainability in our everyday lives. With some fantastic cinematography – they even make the processing of rubbish a visual spectacle – this 25 minute short film talks with people involved in every step of the sustainability movement, from scientists and policy advisors, to the garbo’s who collect our household rubbish and those people who actually work at recycling plants, and even the head chef from one of Australia’s top restaurants, Tetsuya’s.  The overriding message from all of those people is that we need to improve the way we recycle and reuse, because what we’re doing at the moment is just so wasteful, and making those improvements does not have to be difficult, or expensive.  As one of the interviewees remarks, “saving the planet is not about going back and living in a cave… this is actually about progress.”  And while documentaries on this topic in the past have been, to be honest, boring, Waste Not is captivating; the story is told by regular people and really does inspire the viewer to make a change.

Not taking anything away from the sheer power in the way it delivers its message, or the winner for Best Cinematography at 2011 SCINEMA (Where the Wild Things Were, Amber Cherry Eames, Scotland), this would in fact have been my pick for that award.


Another film which hits hard and delivers its message particularly powerfully is 99% Rust, by Nenko Genov of Bulgaria.  Using a very simple narrative style, black and white photographs with captions and haunting music courtesy of New Order, it rams home how wasteful society is.  Just why do we have so much scrap metal lying around when it could easily, cheaply and efficiently be recycled and used indefinitely?

99% Rust by Nenko Genov

99% Rust from Nenko Genov on Vimeo.


On a completely unrelated topic, one of the most popular films shown during our screenings was Worm Hunters, produced by Chris Carroll of Australia, and winner of the Special Jury Prize.  Taking a light hearted look at several groups of scientists, the film follows the groups as they travel the world literally hunting worms, hoping to find species that have never been seen before.  While that may sound dull, we received more comments from filmgoers about this film than any other, it comes together into a really great fun film which children in particular enjoyed immensely.

The Square Kilometre Array – Australia’s final pitch

July 16, 2011

Last week saw the final pitches delivered by the two consortiums bidding for the SKA: Australia and New Zealand, and South Africa. These pitches were delivered at the SKA2011 conference in Canada and provided the final opportunity for each consortium to convince the selection panel that their region was the better site for the SKA to be situated. With anzSKA Project Director Dr Brian Boyle describing the SKA as a “Megascience project”, this is the largest, arguably most complex scientific apparatus every planned, and will be a massive boon not only for the hosting country but for science as a whole.


The two most critical aspects of the success of this project is the development of information technology, and energy generation, according to Professor Peter Quinn, Director of The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research. The SKA will be at least 10,000 times more capable than any telescope before it, and as a result will generate unprecedented amounts of data. In fact, a single day of operation of the SKA will generate more data than the entire world generates in an entire year, which will be stored in a single, central, storage site. This makes the software developed for the SKA arguably the most critical component of the entire project, as it must be able to analyse and compile these monumental amounts of data. In fact the IT requirements of this project are so large that, according to Prof Quinn, the SKA will drive the IT industry for the next 10-15 years.


Green energy is another critical aspect of the SKA project and the Australian bid. The power requirements of the SKA telescopes, of which there will be around 3000, and central computing facilities will be considerable. Additionally, the SKA telescopes will be scattered throughout Australia and New Zealand, raising difficulties for the distribution of energy to the telescope sites. This makes it unviable to rely on regular electricity supplies, and if dedicated power generation facilities are developed, they must be sustainable to limit the effect of the SKA on the environment. This means that the development of innovative energy solutions is a critical step to bringing the SKA to fruition, as will technology to improve energy management, control and efficiency.


Senator Kim Carr, Australian Federal Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, was present in Canada for the final pitch. “This is a project of immense international significance” he told media, highlighting the government’s support of the SKA bid. In particular, he was excited by the benefits this project could have for technological advancements developed during the project which could flow through to everyday life. “In terms of high speed computing, advanced engineering, ICT, in terms of development of green power, there are a range of new technologies I believe will flow from this, as we have seen in the past new technologies flow from astronomical research.”


Senator Carr continued, “The Australian public will receive huge benefits from a project of this type.” He points that there will be “enormous employment opportunities…. and this is a project which will go for 50 years”, and also pointed to technological flow on effects from previous astronomy projects such as wireless networking, now used in nearly every computer in the world.


Australia and New Zealand’s bid has several strengths which should place it in a favourable position. The radio quietness – that is the extremely low level of background radiowaves – found in the Australian outback is a vital feature to maximise the sensitivity and accuracy of the SKA. In fact, a 500km ‘radio quiet zone’ has been established around the SKA sites to ensure that this radio quietness is protected and maintained. Australia’s land mass also provides flexibility in the siting of array stations, allowing the absolutely perfect location to be used for the telescopes. Dr Boyle also suggests the National Broadband Network is a particular strength in the ANZ bid, providing infrastructure for the transmission of data from the SKA outstations to the central data facility. Finally, Australia and New Zealand’s strength lies in its people, with a large group of very strong and reputable astronomy researchers already existing and able to take full advantage of the project.


According to Brian Boyle, the week provided “positive progress” for the Australian bid, and that both bid parties were satisfied that the decision making process in selecting the site was very robust and would lead to an outcome in the best interest of the project as a whole. Following these final bids, an independent expert committee is considering the two sites, and a final decision will be made in February 2012. Whichever site is selected, the SKA project will provide considerable opportunities to all countries involved, and will provide scientific discoveries which literally change the way we see our place in the universe. The building, management and operation of the SKA will also provide technological advancements which will potentially change day-to-day life, making this a scientific project which will have outcomes far beyond astronomical.


For more information about the SKA and the scale of this megascience project, see the previous articles:

SKA: Something Kinda Awesome

SKA: The technical aspect of a mega project

SKA: The technical aspect of a mega project

May 17, 2011

SKA is not only about astronomy. The technological advances just to bring SKA to fruition, never mind its operation, will have wide-ranging benefits for everyone.

The SKA project will cost approximately $3 billion to build, and $150 million per year thereafter to run, with a projected lifespan of 50 years. Additionally, around $300 million dollars will be spent developing data networks to link the telescope sites and central processing sites. However, in preparation Australia has spent around $100 million building several pathfinder telescopes. Should the SKA project site be awarded to Australia, these pathfinder telescopes will be joined by the main SKA arrays starting in 2016, with initial data collection beginning in 2019. The building of SKA itself is not expected to be completed until 2024, however data collection and analysis can begin as soon as elements come on-line during the constructino phase. Obviously building a project on this scale will result in considerable employment, materials and transport needs during the construction phase.

CSIRO’s SKA trial ASKAP Antenna, March 2010. Image courtesy of the CSIRO

One of the most mindboggling statistics of the SKA project is just how much data it will produce. Every minute it is in operation enough data will be gathered to fill one million CD’s, which if stacked, would form a pile 1km tall. Another way of considering this data production is that the amount of data passing through the SKA network will be the equivalent of the amount of data flowing around the entire internet. To handle this immense amount of data new data networks will need to be built. A fibre optic network will need to be constructed to link all the SKA locations together for the sole use of the SKA. In fact the National Broadband Network being built in Australia will provide some of the infrastructure required for SKA, however should the NBN not proceed the SKA project will need to build their own network. Advances in the design and construction of these fibre optic networks are one of the potential non-astronomical benefits that SKA will provide as engineers find new ways to overcome any difficulties encountered.

Radio astronomy has helped develop data networks previously. It was through experiences with radio astronomy projects that researchers at the CSIRO were able to develop wi-fi technology which is currently used by nearly every portable device worldwide. SKA will likely produce similar advances in data networks which will feed into common use.

Obviously with this amount of data needing processing, considerable computing power is required. This is another area in which SKA will drive innovation and advancement, as the central supercomputers required to compile and analyse data will need to be able to process around 100 petaflops per second. This processing speed is 50 times faster than the current most powerful supercomputer, and the equivalent of around one billion desktop pc’s. Similarly, the immense amounts of data collected by each telescope will need to be refined before entering the data network. According to Peter Quinn from the Australia and New Zealand SKA project, this will require a supercomputer at each location just to carry out initial refining. As 3000 supercomputers would be prohibitively expensive, newer, faster and cheaper computer processors need be developed, technology will feed down into home computers.

An artist’s impression of the Pawsey High Performance Computing Centre for SKA Science at Perth’s Technology Park. Image courtesy of Woodhead/CSIRO.

Advancements in communications between sites will also need to be developed. Radios and conventional mobile phones would not be able to be used near the SKA sites due to the radio interference they would cause. Similarly, a rail line running near the sites requires new communications networks to allow trains to communicate with controllers. It is unrelated necessities such as these which sometimes throw up the most interesting challenges for engineers. When developing the Very Large Telescope in Chile, floodlights from a (relatively) nearby mine were being picked up by the extremely sensitive optical telescopes. To overcome this, the engineers from the telescope approached the mine and offered to redesign their lighting system. The result was no interference for the telescope, and a more efficient lighting system for the mine who were able to save money from reduced energy costs.

The advancements in technology from SKA won’t be limited to computing and communications however. The power generation needs of a project like SKA will be huge, far more than can be sourced from the current grid. Using conventional power generation will also result in considerable levels of pollution. Therefore, one of the challenges for the SKA project will be to develop green electricity generation facilities. Again, advancements in that field will flow down to common use. Simialrly, development of new processors to fulfil the computing requirements will include making them more energy efficient, technology which could potentially be incorporated into many home and office appliances.

These, and other advancements in technology, materials and engineering will all flow from the SKA project. Even if Australia is not awarded the right to host SKA, it is likely they will still be able to contribute in these other areas, as well as being an integral part by providing the scientific knowledge required for maximising the value of the data output. There is very little risk of the hardware becoming obsolete either, as the entire project is designed to be able to be upgraded throughout its lifespan to become more sensitive, more efficient, and more adept at processing data.

The SKA project is one of the most important scientific undertakings in history, with the potential for the results to be far more significant than those produced by the Large Hadron Collider. This project will expand our knowledge of the universe, our place in it, and how we formed unlike any project before, and do so while developing technology which will greatly benefit our day to day life. It is, quite simply, one of the most important scientific experiments ever attempted, and one which we should all be excited about.

SKA: Something Kinda Awesome

May 16, 2011

Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences, with pre-historic civilisations examining the sky and the motion of stars and planets. Since then the technology has improved constantly, but now an ambitious project will truly push the boundaries of our understanding of the universe by building the world’s largest telescope. This telescope won’t be a single telescope – instead over 3000 individual radio telescopes will together form a telescope on a scale never seen before – the Square Kilometre Array. The SKA project is an international collaboration which is currently made up of 10 members (but is expected to grow), with a select committee from the International Council of the SKA currently deciding where to host it. The two options are southern Africa and Australia and New Zealand, with a decision expected by the end of 2011.

There are 3 types of telescope used in astronomy, optical, radio and infrared, with each type of telescope needs to be located in specific areas which provide the perfect conditions. Optical telescopes, for example, need to be located in a region which has no outside light sources such as the glow from cities. They are also obviously best suited in regions which have clear skies with few clouds to obscure the images. A further complication is that the atmosphere of Earth actually distorts the optical image, so ideally optical telescopes are placed as high in the atmosphere as possible to reduce the amount of distortion, such as on top of mountain ranges. The Hubble Telescope takes this concept to the extreme by being placed outside of the atmosphere, allowing it to take incredibly detailed images.

The main requirement for the location of a radio telescope is for very little background radiation, such as telecommunications or radio and television transmissions. This means they must be placed far from civilisation, and the deserts of southern Africa or Western Australia are ideal for these reasons. During preliminary assessment of the locations for the SKA testing revealed that the background radio transmissions in the WA deserts were extremely low, significantly less than those in Africa in fact. According to Peter Quinn, one of the senior members of the Australian SKA bid, this should put the Australian site at a distinct advantage.

What radio astronomy measures
Stars release radiation over the entire spectrum of wavelengths, meaning they need to be detected by all three types of telescope to form a whole picture of the universe. Radio astronomy measures the high frequency wavelength radiation released by stars.

CSIRO’s SKA trial ASKAP Antenna, March 2010. Image courtesy of Phil Dawson, CSIRO

There are several basic measurements radio telescopes can achieve. If radiowaves being released from a star are being measured constantly, dip sharply, then return to their previous levels, it is highly likely that there is a planet orbiting that star. This dip in radiation is the point when the planet moves in front of the star, temporarily shielding the telescope from the radiowaves emitted from the star. Using this basic principle, astronomers are able to measure the size of planets, the speed they are travelling, and how long it takes for them to complete an orbit of the star.

Galaxies can affect each other similar to tides in the ocean. When they approach each other, move away, or merge, they can change the shape of other galaxies through massive magnetic forces. These changes in shape result in differences in their radiowave emissions, allowing astronomers to understand the structure and shape of galaxies, as well as how they interact, and understand more about these magnetic forces which shape the universe.

Using radiowaves and the Doppler Effect, astronomers can also examine the movement of objects in the universe. The Doppler Effect says that the frequency of waves, whether they are radiowaves, soundwaves, or visible light waves, changes as objects move. As an object approaches, the waves are closer together, however once the object passes the waves become spread out. This is why a siren on emergency vehicles is high pitched as it approaches (short wavelengths), and then the sound changes to a lower pitch as it passes (long wavelengths). The speed at which an object is travelling changes the distance between the waves, with a faster object causing longer wavelengths. Astronomers apply this principle to measure the speed of objects in the universe. If an object is moving away, by measuring the wavelength of the radiowaves coming off it they can calculate the speed of the object. From the speed it is moving, they can then measure the distance from the telescope, allowing precise measurements of the size of solar systems, galaxies, and the universe as a whole.

The SKA will also be able to search for intelligent life throughout the universe. This can be accomplished by detecting and examining the formation of Earth-like planets. Additionally, the sensitivity of the SKA may allow the detection of extremely faint radio transmissions being released by other civilisations. Our Earth gives off radiowaves from human activities, and it may be possible that other intelligent civilisations also release similar radiowaves.

Artist's impression of dishes that will make up the SKA radio telescope. Image courtesy of Swinburne Astronomy Productions and the SKA Program Development Office.

Possibly one of the most interesting applications of radio astronomy is understanding the formation of the universe during the big bang. This concept of essentially looking back in time seems confusing to many people, but is based on quite a simple principle.

Imagine you are looking at a person standing right in front of you. The time it takes for the light (which is what you see) to go from them to you is extremely short. If you then take a step back, it takes slightly longer for light from them to reach you. The further back you stand, again, the longer the light takes to travel from them to you. Now if you were to stand an incredibly long way away, the light would take a long time to reach you, however the image you see would be how they looked when that light left them on its way to you. In the time it has taken to travel that extremely long distance however, the person will have aged, but you will still be seeing them as they were when the light first began its journey. So, you are effectively looking back in time – you are looking at an image when they were younger than they actually are due to the length of time taken for the light to travel across the distance.

The same principle applies in astronomy. An object an extremely long distance away will have released radiowaves an extremely long time ago, but because of the time it takes for those radiowaves to travel across the distance, we are only receiving them now. So what is being detected now was released from a star many millennia ago. If you can detect radiowaves which were released from further away, the older those radiowaves are, and essentially the further back in time you are seeing. It is possible that radiowaves which were released during the big bang, or as astronomers refer to the time just after the big bang, “First light”, are only being received on Earth now from objects extremely far away.

By measuring these extremely old radiowaves we will be able to form a picture of the events which shaped the universe. The further back astronomers can detect will provide more and more information, however they are hopeful that a project on the scale of SKA will be able to detect radiowaves from “First light”, and resolve just what occurred during and just after the big bang to form the universe.

To measure objects further away, the telescope needs to have a larger collection area. However, the distance away you can measure and size of the collection area aren’t a direct relationship; rather they exist as an exponential relationship. This means that to measure something 10 times further away, the collection area of the telescope needs to be 100 times bigger. This is where the SKA comes in to play. With 3000 telescopes each of 15 metres diameter the SKA has a collection area, as the name suggests, of one square kilometre. In short, this is substantially bigger than any telescope project ever built before, and will give astronomers unprecedented sensitivity.

Artist's impression of dishes that will make up the SKA radio telescope. Image courtesy of Swinburne Astronomy Productions and the SKA Program Development Office.

By spacing the telescopes further apart astronomers can also increase the resolution of the images they produce. Having telescopes placed far apart, but still linked, will give incredibly sensitive and high-quality images. The proposal siting SKA in the WA outback will have outstations positioned as far away as New Zealand. The proposal siting SKA in Africa cannot match this spacing, and therefore would not be able to produce images of as high quality.

Potential SKA array station placement in Australia and New Zealand. Image courtesy of the CSIRO

The SKA is one of the most ambitious science projects ever attempted. Next article will talk about some of the technical requirements for such a project, but we’ll leave the final words of this article to Peter Quinn, who when discussing what effect SKA will have on our understanding of the universe said “I think we’ll be surprised and find something we never expected.”

Thanks to my friends at the RiAus and Peter Quinn from the Australia and New Zealand SKA project. More information is at

The 1000mph Challengers

May 4, 2011

Bloodhound isn’t alone in aiming for the 1000mph mark. An Australian effort, headed by perennial land speed record challenger Rosco McGlashan, is also putting together a car which they hope will break the barrier. And in trademark McGlashan style his car sports a very Australian theme, named the Aussie Invader 5R.

Aussie Invader 5R. Image by Mike Annear

The design of Aussie Invader 5R
The first noticeable design feature of the 5R is the rounded pencil-like shape, in comparison to the more squared off shape of Bloodhound SSC. Part of this design is due to aerodynamics, the other is due to ingenuity and resourcefulness. In order to keep costs down the body will be made of a 40-foot long high grade steel pipe provided by an oil drilling supplier and steel company. A raised area on the rear third of the car contains the driver’s cockpit, electrical systems and braking parachutes, while a V-shaped underbody has been designed to deflect shockwaves bouncing off the ground, reducing their buffeting effect and increasing the stability of the car.

Aussie Invader 5R from the front. Image by Mike Annear

One potential drawback of this narrow pencil-like design in the need to set the front wheels very close together. Such an arrangement, while being good for aerodynamics, may make the car quite unstable and difficult to keep in line. Supersonic cars have a tendency to wander, and such a close set track may make Aussie Invader 5R difficult to control.

The body shape and aerodynamics have been designed using CFD by the Fluid Dynamics Research Group at Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia. Using their know how and expertise built from working with the Jordan Formula 1 team, Aussie Invader’s aerodynamicist Dan McKeon has developed a shape which should be very “slippery” and yet provide good stability.

CFD Pressure chart. Image by the Fluid Dynamics Research Group, Curtin University.

This CFD simulation shows where pressure builds up on the car’s body, creating drag and instability. One advantage of the close-set front wheels is the reduced area creating drag at the front, indicated by the red area under the nose. The rear wheels also create a large amount of drag, and create an areas where shockwaves will likely form. These high drag and shockwave forming areas could potentially be lessened by creating streamlined cowlings such as those seen on the rear wheels of Bloodhound. The wide-set rear wheels are important for stability, so narrowing the distance probably wouldn’t be an option.

As mentioned, the V-shaped underbody should aid stability by deflecting shockwaves bouncing off the ground. An important part of designing a car such as 5R is understanding how the shockwaves will form and interact with the car. The image below shows that shockwaves are expected to form from the nose and the rear section of the car, with a small shockwave forming from the start of the driver’s canopy.

Shockwave formation at approximately 900mph. Image by the Fluid Dynamics Research Group, Curtin University.

A considerable amount of work has gone into designing the front nose. 7 options were investigated using CFD to create a shape which lessens shockwave formation, does not create lift, nor downforce which would result in drag. Subtle differences in nosecone shape were found to have profound changes to the airflow around the car, and in some cases critical differences which could upset the stability of the car at supersonic speeds. In one instance, a nose shape which drooped twards the ground and was almost flat underneath was found to create downforce, but also created drag (shape 5 below). These characteristics were due to a slowing of the air speed over top of the nose cone which increased the downward pressure on the car. By reducing the amount of droop the airflow over the top of the nosecone was smoothened, preventing this area of slow air and reducing the amount of downforce and the amount of drag (shape 6). Just by extending the length of this nose the airflow was again smoothened, reducing drag by around 30% without any noticeable loss of downforce (shape 7). From optimising the shape of the nosecone not only did the engineers reduce drag and increase the stability at the nose by smoothening the airflow, this smoother airflow also potentially reduced shockwave formation further down the car.

Nose design evolution. Image by Dan McKeon

Apart from the differences in shape and design, there is a very big difference in the way Aussie Invader 5R and Bloodhound SSC will be powered. Rather than going for the combination jet-rocket design of Bloodhound, the 5R will be powered only by a rocket developed by New Zealand based Rocket Lab.

Cutaway image of Aussie Invader 5R's rocket. Image by Mike Annear

The design of the 5R’s rocket is based on that of the Atlas rocket used by NASA and is expected to produce around 62,000 lbs of thrust, or the equivalent of 200,000bhp. This makes it around 50% more powerful than Bloodhound’s two engines, which together will produce the equivalent of around 135,000bhp.

The design they have developed uses two liquid fuels rather than the liquid and solid fuel combination used by Bloodhound. A similar design had been considered, but owing to cost and restrictions on the import of hydrogen peroxide the plan was dropped and a new design developed. Instead, a liquid fuel (bio kerosene) and a liquid oxidiser (liquid oxygen) are combined in the combustion chamber and ignited to produce thrust. The complication of this design is that the fuel and oxidiser won’t spontaneously combust in the way the solid fuel and oxidiser used by Bloodhound would. Instead, a third liquid, TEA, is also injected into the engine to ignite and maintain ignition of the engine.

The way the fuel is delivered into the jet engine is a particularly clever piece of design. The team have done away with fuel pumps, and instead the liquid fuels are forced into the engine using pressurised helium. In essence, the pressurised helium is fed into the fuel tanks from one end, pushing the fuel out the other. To start this process, valves at the engine end of the fuel tanks are opened, and the fuel is pushed through and into the engine by the pressurised helium. Because the amount the fuel valves are opened can be controlled, the fuel flow rates can also be controlled, allowing the throttling of the engine and control over the amount of thrust being produced.

This design of the engine for 5R is notable for its few moving parts, which they hope will ultimately be more reliable through its simplicity.

Cutaway image of Aussie Invader 5R. Image by Mike Annear

The cutaway picture above shows the packaging of the 5R. From the front, the large tank is the liquid oxygen reservoir, with the pressurised helium tank behind it responsible for forcing the oxidiser into the engine. Behind a bulkhead is the cockpit and safety roll cage for the driver, with the bio-kerosene fuel tank and helium pressure tank behind another bulkhead. The liquid fuel and oxidiser are piped from their tanks into the rocket engine at the rear of the car. Parachutes and electrical systems are contained in the raised section behind the cockpit, above the bio-kerosene tank and rocket engine.

Should all go as planned, the engine should be able to power the car to its maximum velocity in around 20 seconds. Once at 1000mph the driver will then have to throttle back to 75% power, enough to stop acceleration but maintain speed. After leaving the timing area the driver will reduce power in increments until at a safe speed to deploy the air brakes, parachutes and wheel brakes. The reason for reducing power slowly is to avoid the sudden reversing of g-forces which would occur if the power was immediately cut. As discussed in What it takes to go 1000mph Part 2, this sudden reversal of g-force can cause the driver to black out, potentially causing him to lose control of the car.

Rosco McGlashan and his team are currently building the Aussie Invader 5R and hope to be able to have a tilt at the record at about the same time as Bloodhound. With Aussie Invader planning on running at desert locations in the United States or in the north of Western Australia, there may well be a race to reach the mark between the two teams running simultaneously in two locations. While there is no guarantee either team will reach 1000mph, these two engineering adventures will inspire the next generation of engineers, and that should be considered a success in itself.