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Land speed record: British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

Bloodhound SSC will attempt to set a new standard in South Africa's Kalahari desert

Jamie Merrill
Sunday 22 March 2015 01:00 GMT
The Bloodhound project aims to visit 6,000 schools and reach as many as 8.5 million children by 2018
The Bloodhound project aims to visit 6,000 schools and reach as many as 8.5 million children by 2018 (Tom Pilston)

It sounds like a record attempt from another era of British history. This October, with a confident RAF wing commander at the wheel, a futuristic Bristol-built rocket car will attempt to break the land speed record.

The attempt will take place on a specially cleared 12-mile stretch of the Hakskeen Pan in South Africa’s Kalahari desert, where it is hoped the speed reached will be a staggering 1,000mph.

It will cost close to £40m and has attracted big business backing, but despite the talk of thrust, power and speed, the engineers and scientists behind Bloodhound SSC (supersonic car) say it isn’t just about going fast. “Going fast is not our number one job in this project,” said Wing Commander Andy Green. “In fact our number one job is inspiring the next generation of engineers, scientists and mathematicians.”

The RAF officer, 53, will be trying to break his own record of 763mph set in Richard Noble’s Thrust SSC. He set that record in 1997. Nearly 20 years later the world has changed so much that even a Cold War-era fast jet pilot knows he has to be environmentally and socially aware.

Andy Green will drive the £40m car (Tom Pilston)

He added: “It’s the young people we inspire who are going to go on and build the new green technologies of the future. It’s just that you won’t get a 10-year-old excited about a wind turbine: you will get them excited about a land speed record.”

Of course Bloodhound isn’t really green – it produces as much pollution per 60-second run as a 747 travelling 17 miles – but its designers say its hybrid jet and rocket propulsion system is the “greenest way possible” to break the sound barrier on land.

Last week that ambition came closer at the project’s workshop with the first matching of the rocket section to the car chassis and the announcement that the vehicle would be tested at Newbury airport in August, hopefully reaching up to 200mph in what the team describes as a “low speed” test run.

Land speed racing might be the oldest form of motorsport, but Wing Commander Green and chief engineer Mark Chapman know that speed isn’t everything. That’s why, they stress, the project aims to visit 6,000 schools, provide learning materials, run a model rocket car competition and reach as many as 8.5 million children by 2018.

“We know this project, which was launched in 2008 as Lehman Brothers was collapsing, would have never got off the ground and attracted sponsors, if it had just been about speed. It has to be about inspiring the boys and girls of today to become the engineers of the future,” said Mr Chapman.

In engineering terms, keeping the Bloodhound on the ground is an enormous challenge, as it will hit 1,000 mph in 55 seconds thanks to its unique combination of a Eurofighter jet engine and a cluster of Nammo hybrid space rockets. This hybrid engine (it uses a cleaner form of rocket oxidiser and rubber than most space craft) will produce in the region of 135,000 brake horsepower, which is 11 times the power output of the entire F1 starting grid. There’s even a 550bhp Jaguar engine just to run the rocket’s fuel pump.

Andy Green hopes to break his own record of 763mph set in Richard Noble’s Thrust SSC (Tom Pilston)

“More people have driven on the surface of the Moon than have driven at supersonic speed on Earth,” said Mr Chapman. “Travelling beyond 800mph is really the ‘here be dragons’ part of the map.”

Later this year the team will establish themselves in South Africa for three months. It’s here that for five years 300 local workers have been removing 18,500 tonnes of stone by hand from the dried-up lake-bed track. It’s now ready, but at first the team will “only” be aiming for 800mph and a new record. They will then return in 2016 to push on to 1,000mph by adding two extra rocket engines to the car.

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