Bloodhound crew fired up as rocket passes first test
THE Bristol-based team behind the Bloodhound 1,000mph car blasted the project past its first major milestone yesterday with the first test firing of its revolutionary hybrid fuel rocket.
The test, which took place at a military base near Newquay, in Cornwall, was the largest rocket firing in the UK for 20 years, and the largest rocket ever to be developed in Europe.
The ambitious test was hailed "an enormous success" ahead of the bid to break the land speed record (763mph) in 2013 and the 1,000mph barrier in 2014.
David Clensy went to watch as the rocket was tested for the first time.
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YOU would be forgiven for thinking that Newquay is best known for surfers and beach bums, but it was eccentric rocket scientists and some of the world's leading motorsport engineers who descended on a small military base beside Newquay airport yesterday morning.
RAF St Mawgan was the venue for the first ever testing of the hybrid fuelled rocket that will give the Bloodhound supersonic car the extra thrust to get it through the elusive 1,000mph barrier.
For the Bristol-based team behind Bloodhound, it was the most significant "make or break" moment so far, and the tension could clearly be seen on the faces of project director Richard Noble, chief engineer Mark Chapman, and above all on the face of Andy Green, the RAF fighter pilot who will find himself in the cockpit of Bloodhound when it takes to the deserts of South Africa in its bids to break the land speed record (763mph) in 2013 and the 1,000mph barrier in 2014.
The rocket itself was locked inside a hardened air shelter for the test firing – and the team watched the screens anxiously in the neighbouring hangar, knowing all too well that any error in the science behind the device could have explosive consequences.
The countdown to the test firing was an extraordinarily tense time.
It was the first complete test firing for the rocket system, comprising a Cosworth CA2010 F1 engine, high test peroxide tank, custom designed gear box, unique software – and of course the revolutionary hybrid fuelled Falcon rocket.
Any single failure in any part of the system could spell disaster.
At four meters (12ft) long, 45.7 cm (18 inches) in diameter and 450kg in weight, Bloodhound's rocket is the largest of its kind ever designed in Europe and the biggest to be fired in the UK for 20 years. In its ultimate form it will generate 27,500lbs of thrust, which is equivalent to 80,000 horsepower – the combined output of 95 Formula 1 cars.
The Bloodhound project has been inspiring the engineers of the future across Bristol. In this video year 5 pupils from Elmlea junior school in Westbury-on-Trym watched the firing at a very special assembly.
The rocket itself is the dreamchild of the project's very own rocket man, Daniel Jubb.
At just 28 years old, Daniel is a precocious talent. But Daniel was a child prodigy of the world of rocket science – he was the managing director of his company Falcon Project at the age of just 13, abandoning his education illegally in order to allow his career to take off.
"For a while it was just a hobby I did with my grandfather – trying to see how high we could make our rockets go," Daniel tells me. "But by the time I was 11, in 1995, we were so engrossed in the project, and it had become so serious and on such a big scale, we decided to set up a business, the Falcon Project.
"Within a couple of years I had left school and was running the company."
Today the company has become an industry leader, but the majority of the rockets Daniel and his team designs and builds, both commercial and military, are top-secret affairs.
"That's what makes working on Bloodhound so nice," Daniel says. "Because the data for Bloodhound is all open-source, for once we can talk about the work we're doing."
The Manchester-born rocket scientist, who also sports a glorious handlebar moustache long before his time, explained how the test firing would work.
"It won't be attached to the car at this stage, of course, the car is yet to be built," Daniel says. "For the test firing the rocket will be screwed to the ground. But it should be quite a spectacular display.
"Normally when we do a test firing of a rocket before the assembled media, we have had plenty of pre-test firings in advance. But this will genuinely be the first time the rocket system for Bloodhound has been fully assembled and fired.
"But of course we have done a lot of workings-out on paper, so it shouldn't be too much of an unknown quantity," he adds reassuringly.
"This rocket is quite different to the solid fuel rockets we normally build – this is a hybrid fuel rocket, using both liquid and solid fuel.
"But it's vital that we have a hybrid fuel rocket so that the driver, Andy Green, has some control over the rocket's output. If he needs to abort at any time, he will be able to switch the rocket off – with a solid fuel rocket, this would be virtually impossible. He would essentially be strapped to an enormous firework."
During the test, the Cosworth F1 engine revved to 17,500rpm in order to fire high-test peroxide into the rocket at a pressure of 800lbs per square inch – equivalent to holding four large family cars on the palm of your hand – and with enough flow to fill a bath in five seconds.
The rocket burnt for ten seconds during the test; half the duration of a record run but sufficient to generate around 30,000 equivalent horse power.
Had the rocket been pointed upwards, and not firmly bolted to the ground, it is estimated that it would rise to 25,000ft – which started those of us in the assembled press pack worrying about the rigidity of the bolts they used to attach it to the floor.
Predicted sound levels for the test approached 185dB, many times that of a Boeing 747 at take off and making it the loudest man-made noise heard on Earth yesterday.
At 3,000ºC, the temperature in the rocket at the point of testing will be twice the heat of the interior of a volcano.
The world's media had travelled to the Cornish RAF base to witness the test – with journalists from as far afield as Russia, America and Saudi Arabia.
The team made it clear to the assembled media that the test is not without risk. The engineers were primed to answer questions such as: Will the system perform as expected? Will the silver catalyst break up under the force of HTP? Will the full-size rocket produce the expected amount of power?
But in reality most of us were thinking: Will we all still be breathing and retaining all our limbs in a few moments' time?
The last time a rocket was demonstrated publicly at this early level of maturity was during the Apollo programme back in the 1960s.
One hour before the test, I talked to an excited Mark Chapman, pictured above, chief engineer for the project.
"Last night felt like the night before my wedding," he says. "This is a very big day for us – one of the real milestones.
"Realistically we don't mind if the rocket works perfectly or blows up spectacularly. This is a test not a demonstration. If it explodes we will learn why. Better now than next year when Andy Green is strapped to the front of it."
You may imagine it's a slightly different matter for Tony Parraman, Bloodhound's head of sponsor liaison.
"Not really," he smiled nervously. "Sponsors essentially want coverage. If this thing blows up, we'll get plenty of coverage."
As the moment of truth arrived, a hush descended across the 400 people in the control hangar, and behind the bank of screens, Daniel pressed a button that started the testing procedure.
The screens filled with a wall of flame, and the room was overwhelmed by the roar of the rocket. For a moment, it was impossible to know if the test was a success or a catastrophic failure.
But as smiles crept over the faces of each of the Bloodhound engineers, it quickly became clear that the test has been a success.
"That's the best possible result we could have hoped to see today," said driver Andy Green, with an ear-to-ear smile.
Mark Chapman added: "This was brilliant, we created 14,200lb of thrust, now we go back to Bristol and build the car."