Five times faster than the speed of sound

In aerodynamics, hypersonic speed greatly exceeds the speed of sound. On the ground, sound waves travel at around 340 metres per second. Any faster than this is supersonic, and five or more times faster is hypersonic. Unlike supersonic flow, with a hypersonic flow there is no sound barrier that is broken. As a vehicle moves faster and faster, the heat transfer of the flow starts to become important as the kinetic energy of the object converts to heat in the surrounding gases. 

In the natural world, objects such as meteors and asteroids move through the Earth’s atmosphere hypersonically. Space shuttles and other space vehicles that we send to other planets, like the Mars Pathfinder-type probes, are man-made hypersonic vehicles. There have also been attempts to build aircraft that fly at hypersonic speeds here on Earth.


Hypersonic and high-speed flow research at UNSW Canberra investigates the gas dynamics of chemically reacting and real-gas flows. These inform the design of the hypersonic propulsion systems and planetary entry systems required to achieve practical hypersonic flight for high-speed aircraft. This is achieved by solving fundamental problems in aerothermodynamics, including the effects of chemical reactions and real-gas effects on laminar and turbulent flows of gas mixtures. 

These processes include separated flows, leading-edge bluntness effects, surface temperature effects, wake flows, and fluid-thermal-structural interactions. We investigate these processes using a combination of experimental, mathematical analysis, and numerical simulation.   

We have several significant research achievements, including: 

  • The first demonstration of laser ignition as a means of enhancing the supersonic combustion of hydrogen. 
  • The world’s fastest scanning absorption-based temperature measurements, capable of 1.6 million spectra (and hence temperature measurements) per second. 
  • Developing instrumented free-flight models for developing hypersonic control parameter databases for generic flight configurations. 
  • Developing resonantly enhanced shearing interferometry (RESI), a flow visualisation technique for low-density flows that increases sensitivity to density gradients by more than 100 times. 
  • First measurements of 2D two-component velocity distributions in hypersonic separated flows using a non-intrusive technique, resulting in advances in analytical modelling of these flows. 
  • Developing new non-intrusive technologies for measuring fundamental quantities such as diffusion coefficient and viscosity at rarefied conditions, where such measurements have previously proved too difficult to perform. 
  • We host a database of our own high-speed FSI unit cases and those of the international community. View the high-speed FSI unit cases.

Competitive advantage

We invested several decades to understanding the application of advanced laser-based diagnostic techniques to hypersonic flow measurements.

  • We have one of very few facilities in the world with a suite of several non-intrusive measurement and visualisation techniques with the ability to generate conditions simulating high-speed flight. This makes our facility among the best understood and best characterised hypersonic facilities in the world.   
  • We also have other facilities including a supersonic wind tunnel for steady supersonic flows with Mach numbers 2 to 3, or a rectangular shock tube with a 150 mm x 75 mm cross-section, together with a suite of high-speed cameras (frame rates up to 10 million framers per second) combined with several different visualisation systems (schlieren, shadowgraph, shearing interferometry), which can be used individually or as combinations. 
  • We are capable of testing models with hot walls, to more realistically simulate real gas conditions of hypersonic entry and flight scenarios.   
  • Our combination of hypersonic and diagnostic expertise makes us a leading research group in the area of supersonic ignition and combustion processes. 
  • We have long-standing expertise in the design, simulation, and measurement of the thermal-structural behaviour of high-speed vehicles and propulsion systems. 
  • We have developed unique capabilities for the dynamic testing of critical aspects of hypersonic flight including:
    • fluid-thermal-structural interactions 
    • the use of tunnel-based free flight testing for the characterisation of the aerodynamic envelope of vehicle geometries and dynamic separations system in the loop testing of control approaches including fluidics.

Successful applications

UNSW Canberra Space’s applications of our SSA research include: 

  • using our optical and numerical SSA techniques to study the reflected-sunlight light curves that are generated due to various motions of the Buccaneer Risk Mitigation Mission spacecraft 
  • aero-assisted formation control strategies for the Royal Australian Air Force M2 dual satellite program  
  • applying our understanding of the physics of ionospheric aerodynamics to propose propulsion-free satellite de-orbit approaches from higher altitudes than normally thought possible 
  • multiple US Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) grants for ionospheric aerodynamic research to enable improved orbital control of LEO spacecraft 
  • imaging the deployment of the Plant Flock 3p (the largest number of satellites launched on a single rocket in history) just two hours after launch 
  • obtaining light curve information on Plant Flock 3p cubesats, to assist international universities with understanding and troubleshooting the behaviour of their satellites 
  • assisting CSIRO and JPL in the analysis of data by applying the Tidbinbilla and Parkes very large radio telescopes as bi-static radar instruments for tracking near-Earth asteroids.


Study with us

We offer courses in both hypersonic and gas-turbine engine theory at the undergraduate level, as well as a course in instrumentation. 

For further information please contact Sean O’Byrne or Andrew Neely.


Our researchers

Facilities Coordinator Harald Kleine
Facilities Coordinator
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Electrical Engineering Program Coordinator and Yowie Coordinator Toby Boyson
Electrical Engineering Program Coordinator and Yowie Coordinator
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Honorary Associate Professor
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Lecturer Krishna Talluru Murali
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Professor Andrew Neely
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Deputy Head of School (Research) Sean O'Byrne
Deputy Head of School (Research)
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Aeronautical Engineering Program Coordinator Graham Wild
Aeronautical Engineering Program Coordinator
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Associate Professor John Young
Associate Professor
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