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Tuesday 21st March

Bloodhound's rocket test: success!

Published: 05 Oct 2012

On Wednesday, in a part of England where a crimped concoction of meat and pastry is legal tender, the Bloodhound SSC project finally became real... and very noisy.

In a sealed bunker that used to house Tornado jets, Top Gear witnessed the greatest live science experiment of our lives. There wasn't a conical flask, Bunsen burner or clamp stand in sight, just a 12 foot long, 18-inch wide 450kg rocket strapped to the floor being assisted by a screaming F1 engine as a fuel-pump. This rocket is the biggest to be fired in the UK for 20 years (and far bigger than the ones we've used to fire a Mini off a ski jump or a Reliant Robin into space.) 

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What was it doing there? Well, said big rocket is - hopefully - going to power a car to over 1,000mph in a couple of years. And having never tested the hybrid rocket setup (more on that later) Richard Noble and his Bloodhound gang conducted their first ever live test in front of an appreciative crowd.

Thankfully it didn't blow Cornwall off the map, but did what it was meant to - produce lots of thrust.

It still isn't running at full whack, but did manage a healthy 14,200lbs of push, which equates to six tonnes of oomph. Andy Green, the extremely brave man who's going to drive the car, described this as "seriously, seriously good news". When the car goes for the record run in South Africa in 2014, it'll generate 27,500lbs of thrust, which is equivalent to 80,000bhp (or nearly 1,400 VW Ups).

The Bloodhound will get to 1,000mph using three components that we love at Top Gear: F1 engines, Eurofighter jets and that rocket. How they all work is a bit complex, so apply your safety specs dot commers, this is quite literally rocket science.

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To get the Bloodhound up to a healthy 300-ish mph, the car will be propelled by an EJ200 jet engine from a Eurofighter Typhoon. Then, when ex-fighter pilot Andy wants to go supersonic, he'll initiate the rocket sequence to send the car booming through the sound barrier.

Now, there are different rockets that could be used, but the Bloodhound uses some ingenious engineering. It's a hybrid - but not in a Toyota Prius or Porsche 918 kind of way.

In the world of rockets there are a few different options. You've got solid rockets which are just like fireworks: you light it, you can't stop it, it just goes up in the air and then bang. The boosters on the sides of the Space Shuttle are solid rockets (and can be jettisoned if it goes a bit wrong).

A liquid rocket is what acts as the main engine of the Space Shuttle. They work by taking two liquids - nasty ones that end in sene and oxide - mixing them together and letting them explode.

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Both liquid and solid rockets can be dangerous, especially when there's a man sat just in front of them and the object he's strapped to is going faster than a bullet. To counter this, Bloodhound uses a hybrid rocket: one that contains both a solid and liquid rocket.

Bloodhound's solid rocket is made of rubber and doesn't burn or explode, it just goes out again if you put a match to it. So to make the car go, hydrogen peroxide (a strong variant of what Katie Price uses to dye her hair) gets pumped through a catalyst pack, where it decomposes into water and oxygen. This comes out of the catalyst pack as superheated steam which then melts down the rubber, which becomes fuel and the oxygen ignites the rubber to provide biblical amounts of go.

The main benefit of this horribly complex giant rubber rocket? If something goes wrong, and Bloodhound's rocket man Andy wants to call it quits, he stops the flow of concentrated hair dye by closing the valves and turning off the pump (beware, that's your next lesson) and the rocket will go out and the car will stop. So it's very safe... in rocket terms that is.

Have you got all that? Good. Well here's your next lesson: the insane fuel pump.

To keep the rocket burning, they need to get an actual tonne of liquid from the fuel tank to the rocket in 17 seconds. This requires a big pump. Luckily Cosworth had a spare 800bhp F1 engine from this season lying around and kindly donated it to the project. The V8 is connected to a pump from a 1960s Blue Steel cruise missile, and when the engine is spinning at 18,000rpm, it can get all the fuel to the rocket.

The last time we saw the Bloodhound SSC it was a replica and parked on the streets of London. The car still isn't ready, but a lot has happened since we last saw it.

As you can see, there's a shopping list of awesome associated to this car. Eurofighter jet engine? Check. F1 engine? Check. Pump from a cruise missile? Check. Ruddy big rocket? Check. But packaging this into a car is a tough job, and it's left to a team of 20 designers to work out how to fit this around Andy's 6ft 4" frame.

"The biggest problem has been to work out how to keep the car on the ground", Mark Chapman, the project's chief engineer, told Top Gear. At one stage, after digitally running the car, it was generating 11 tonnes of lift, which is fine for a plane, but not the best result when you're trying to set a new land speed record. But with the help of Intel and the University of Swansea, it now stays on the ground. Which is probably a good thing.

"Aerodynamics have taken a long time and we've made lots of little changes to get the balance right. The biggest problem at the moment is weight, it's currently 7.7 tonnes and we need to get down to 6.5 tonnes. But don't worry, we'll make that happen", said Chris Gill, the Integration Engineer.

We're sure they will. Bloodhound have got some of the best boffins in the world on their team. But there's even more work once the car's design has been figured out. They need somewhere to race it. Somewhere big and flat. Very flat.

Using some very clever software, the team found that Hakskeen Pan in South Africa was the best place to attempt to beat Andy and Richard's last project: Thrust SSC's 763mph. It definitely isn't a case of rocking up, lighting the rocket and crossing their fingers. Amazingly, the 12 mile long, 2 mile wide track where Bloodhound plans to chomp those miles up in 3.6 seconds, is being built by hand. Yes, you read that right. They're building the world's widest, fastest, handmade racetrack.

235 million square feet of land - the biggest in history and first world record for the project - has already been cleared by a team of 317 workers with just rakes and wheel barrows. That's the equivalent of clearing a road stretching from London to Moscow... by hand.

This project already has a Guinness Book of Record's worth of ridiculous numbers and facts. And with this week's rocket test, the project has reached a very physical and exciting stage.

We've got low speed testing in the UK to look forward to at the beginning of next year, 800mph test runs at the end of 2013 and hopefully a 1000+mph in 2014. So stay tuned folks.

If you want to watch this week's rocket test, click the play button below. 

Right, now who can remember how that hybrid rocket works?

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