The list of spacefaring nations remains small, but thanks to continuing advances in technology that promise to reduce the financial and logistical hurdles involved, the numbers are set to increase. One country that could be joining the club, if the University of Queensland (UQ) and Heliaq Advanced Engineering get their way, is Australia. The two are teaming up on a project intended to deliver payloads weighing from 50 to 500 kg (110 to 1,102 lb) into orbit.

Called Spartan, the planned three-stage project is aimed at riding the surge of interest in the small satellite market. The first stage consists of a reusable rocket booster called the Austral Launch Vehicle (ALV). This would launch vertically carrying the upper stages of a rocket to scramjet take-over speed of Mach five before releasing them at an altitude of around 25 km (15 mi).

The ALV would then deploy a swiveling, oblique wing and nose-mounted piston engine to return to base using wings and propellers as the hydrogen-fueled second stage Spartan scramjet accelerates to Mach 10, releasing the rocket-powered third and final stage at an altitude of around 40 km (25 mi) before it glides back to base for a conventional landing.

"This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Australia’s hypersonic industry to join the space community," says Professor Michael Smart, the Chair of Hypersonic Propulsion at UQ's Centre for Hypersonics. "Currently, there are about 1,265 satellites orbiting in space, but the cost to launch a single satellite is astronomical. "Our project aim is to reduce this cost and make it more economically viable for smaller nations and organisations to launch their own satellites and monitor their own space activity through the development of a reusable space launch system."

The reusable ALV and Spartan scramjet stages would allow 95 percent of the system to be reusable, while reducing reliance on converted Russian missile launchers or hitching rides with larger satellites that are launched into much higher orbits. Satellites placed into orbit would be able to be monitored nationally or internationally.

The project team is developing sub-scale ALV and Spartan technology demonstrators, and expects to fly an ALV demonstrator (ALV-0) boasting a three-meter (9.8-ft) wingspan by the end of this year, which is intended to demonstrate systems deployment and low-speed handling.

"It will take off like a normal aircraft, stow the wings and then redeploy them," says Professor Smart. "This test flight will focus on the slow speed handling to prove that this prototype can actually work. We are trying to concentrate on the new things, not the classic rocketry things that have been done before."

The team will then look to follow up with a rocket-powered demonstrator (ALV-1), but this is still in the funding stages. These initial phases are expected to be carried out as advanced academic research projects aimed at reducing risk and proving feasibility of the concept at a minimal cost. Subsequent phases, including the developing and testing of an ALV-2 full envelope test vehicle and commercial operation of ALV-3 vehicle, are expected to be commercial endeavors.