At 200 miles per hour (320 km/h), the hybrid rocket engine kicks in. The vehicle, which looks more like a jet than a car, accelerates at three Gs. The ground beneath turns to fluid and huge shockwaves form behind as it reaches more than 1,000 mph (1,610 km/h) in just 55 seconds, completing a mile in a blistering 3.6 seconds, before high-tech brakes bring it back to a standstill 65 seconds later.
This is what will await the driver of the Bloodhound Supersonic Car (SSC), an attempt by a British team not just to break the world record, but to smash it. Bloodhound has been eight years in the making, with considerable hype and anticipation around the project. This week at Canary Wharf in London, the more than 95% complete car was revealed to the public for the first time. This vehicle is now almost ready to take its sole driver, Andy Green, faster than any human has gone on land before.
The current land speed record stands at 760 mph (1,224 km/h), also set by Green, in the ThrustSSC vehicle on Black Rock Desert in Nevada in 1997. But in 2007, the fledgling Bloodhound SSC team decided to do what no one had tried before: break the 1,000 mph barrier. Thus began close to a decade of work and toil, with the team deciding on the optimum design to make the dream a reality.
“We started eight years ago with a simple question: can it be done?” Dr. Ben Evans, a lecturer in aerospace engineering at Swansea University and the aerodynamicist on the design team for Bloodhound SSC, told IFLScience. “We spent a year doing research and development, and running simulations. When we found it was possible to take a vehicle this size to 1,000 mph on the Earth and keep it on the ground, we started the design process. Over the last seven years, we have evolved the car.”
The car is being unveiled to the public for the first time over the next two days in Canary Wharf, London. Bloodhound.
The end result is a car measuring 13.5 meters (44.3 feet) in length and 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) in width. It uses a combination of jet and rocket motors to produce 135,000 thrust horsepower, equivalent to 180 modern Formula 1 cars combined. At top speed, the wheels will spin at 10,200 rpm – 170 times per second – while the car will go from 0 to 1,000 mph in 55 seconds and back to zero in another 65 seconds.
When Green eventually attempts the record-breaking run, expected in 2017, a Rolls-Royce Eurofighter-Typhoon jet engine will take the car up to 200 mph (320 km/h). At this point, Green will activate a Nammo hybrid rocket engine, which will boost the car up towards its top speed of 1,050 mph (1,690 km/h). At this speed, it will complete a mile in just 3.6 seconds.
At the event in Canary Wharf, we had a go on a simulator that shows you just how difficult it is to drive at such high speeds. The car must be kept in almost a straight line, requiring minute adjustments to the steering wheel, all the while keeping an eye on several displays to activate its various components at different times. It accentuates just how much of a challenge, from an engineering and driver’s perspective, this project really is.
A simulator lets you get behind the wheel of the car. Jonathan O'Callaghan/IFLScience.
The section of land that has been picked, the Hakskeen Pan in the Northern Cape region of South Africa, is about 12 miles (19 kilometers) long and two miles (3 kilometers) wide. This gives Green just enough time to get to top speed before air brakes and conventional car disc brakes bring him gradually back to a standstill.
Green will be controlling the car with a steering wheel, pedals and an array of buttons inside the cockpit. He will have just two attempts within an hour, as per regulations, to break the record. There’s no guarantee it will break the 1,000 mph barrier, but the team is optimistic, and at the very least it will almost certainly break the standing land speed record.
“Absolutely, we are confident,” Mark Elvin, lead engineer on Bloodhound SSC, told IFLScience. “It will smash the record.”
Around Easter next year, the team will complete low-speed testing up to 200 mph (320 km/h) at the Newquay Aerohub in the U.K. Then, in the summer of 2016, they will head to the Hakskeen Pan to take the car up to 800 mph (1,290 km/h). The car has never been run at these speeds, so everything is a learning experience, but if all goes to plan, the attempt at 1,000 mph will be made in 2017.
The video above shows what will happen during the attempt to reach 1,000 mph.
The team admits there are a number of unknowns. For example, the body of the car will generate shockwaves, which could turn the hard surface crust underneath into a fluid. “There are loads of unknowns, but we’ll learn,” said Elvin. And he emphasized that safety was paramount to the project; Bloodhound has been designed to ensure as little can go wrong as possible that could threaten the life of its driver. “We’ll either make it safe or go home,” Elvin added.
And the attempt isn’t just for fun, a show of power like no other. It is providing untold scientific spin-offs into what happens at these speeds, while the engineering challenge itself has led to a number of technology breakthroughs. Dr. Evans adds, though, that the record-breaking attempt itself is undoubtedly the car’s main appeal.
“People often ask me, what’s the point in this?” he said. “My argument is always, in life, sometimes you do things just because they’re difficult. Why did we put man on the Moon? Because it was a massive challenge. Why are we trying to take the land speed record to 1,000 mph? Because it’s a massive challenge.”
This is the cockpit Andy Green will be sitting in. Jonathan O'Callaghan/IFLScience.
Bloodhound SSC isn’t the only team trying to break the land speed record: North American Eagle in the U.S. is hoping to break the current record by 1% in the coming years. But Bloodhound is alone in its ultimate ambition of taking a human beyond 1,000 mph on the ground for the first time.
Eight years in the making, the moment of truth is rapidly arriving. Head to the Hakskeen Pan in South Africa in 2017, and you might just catch a glimpse of a British engineering masterpiece doing the impossible.