8 March 2013
At Hakskeen Pan, a dry lakebed in South Africa’s Northern Cape, a team of 317 previously unemployed people funded by the provincial government is finishing up its job of clearing rocks and stones from 10-million square metres of desert race track – by hand.
When they’re done, they’ll have helped create what “the fastest man on earth”, land speed record holder Andy Green, has described as “the world’s best race track, just waiting for the world’s first 1 000 mph car to arrive”.
That will be in late 2013 or early 2014, when South Africa will host the most ambitious attempt yet made on the world land speed record – a crack at a new record of 1 000 mph (1 610 km/h) which, if successful, will mark the biggest ever increase (30%) in the history of the record, and will also exceed the low altitude speed record (around 994 mph) for aircraft.
The Bloodhound Project is the name of a global education initiative that has been built around the record attempt. It aims to inspire young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and its centrepiece is the Bloodhound SSC (Super Sonic Car), a 33 000 horsepower jet- and rocket-powered racing car.
The car, currently being built in a special technical centre near Bristol in the UK, will come to South Africa towards the end of 2013 or early in 2014 for test runs, before returning about a year later for the record attempt.
Behind the venture is the same British team, led by Andy Green and project director Richard Noble, that holds the current record of 763 mph (1 228 km/h), set in the Black Rock Desert in the US in 1997. Green, a British Royal Air Force fighter pilot, was the man behind the wheel then, and will be again when Bloodhound SSC fires up in the Northern Cape from late 2013.
Faster than a bullet – literally
What will happen then makes for some hair-raising mathematics. The Bloodhound SSC will be powered by an EJ200 jet engine from a Typhoon fighter jet, which will be coupled with a prototype hybrid rocket. Together, they will put out 100 000 KW – the equivalent of 180 Formula One cars.
According to the team’s preliminary calculations, the 12.8-metre long, 6 422 kilogram (when fuelled) vehicle will “be more advanced than most spacecraft and faster than a bullet fired from a handgun.
“Its 900 mm diameter wheels will spin at over 10 000 rpm, generating 50 000 radial g at the rim. The car will accelerate from 0 to 1 050 mph in 40 seconds and, at V-max (maximum velocity), the pressure of air bearing down on its carbon-fibre and titanium bodywork will exceed 12 tonnes per square metre.
“At this speed, Andy Green will be covering a distance equivalent to over four football pitches every second, or 50 metres in the blink of an eye.”
Ideal location for horizontal rocket launch
The venue for this hi-tech venture, South Africa’s Hakskeen Pan, was chosen over 34 other locations after a satellite programme identified level strips of land around the world that could handle a vehicle weighing nearly 6.5 tonnes travelling at inhuman speeds.
For a record attempt to be successful, Bloodhound will have to complete two runs within the space of an hour, with the average times calculated as the new record. “The ability to control the car’s stopping, and therefore the turnaround time, is key to the success of the record attempt,” the Bloodhound website notes.
Hakskeen Pan, located about 160 kilometres north of the town of Upington, fitted the bill perfectly. Over 20 kilometres long and five kilometres wide, it has a vertical variation of only 61 millimetres over the entire 20-kilometre distance of the run, making the pan’s surface ideal for a record attempt. Predictable dry weather conditions for key parts of the year added to the site’s appeal.
According to the Bloodhound Project, the Northern Cape provincial government has been a crucial partner in creating the ideal run site for the record attempt. In a November update on the Bloodhound website, project member Rudi Riek noted that the government had spent close to R8-million on clearing Hakskeenpan, in the process creating employment for 317 people.
The decision to clear the stones on the pan by hand was, Riek said, made for two reasons: because it would be the best way to ensure minimal impact on the surface, but also because it was the best way to uplift the community living in the vicinity of the pan.
6 000 tonnes of stones and rocks
Between November 2010 and November 2012, the team worked a total of 130 days, due to heat and rain delays. It is, as Riek noted, an extreme environment: “The temperatures range between minus 6 degrees and plus 45 degrees Celsius, and if it is not extremely dry, then it is extremely wet.”
The job they’ve done has been monumental. The track is 20 kilometres long and, including the safety zones, 1.1 kilometres wide.
“I need to give you some perspective,” Riek wrote. “20 000m x 1 100m = 22-million square metres of area cleared by 317 people in 130 days. Add to that the fact that even the smallest little stone is lodged into the clay and needs to be forcibly removed, and then imagine doing this in extreme conditions, including sub-zero temperatures in the morning, soaring temperatures in the afternoon, and on some days severe dust storms.”
Their harvest? By the time of project director Richard Noble’s visit to the site to thank the workers and their families in January, the team had removed 6 000 tonnes of stones and rocks, resulting in what the Bloodhound website has claimed as “the first world record associated with the Bloodhound Project – the largest land mass cleared by hand, amounting to the equivalent of 4 000 football pitches”.
Additional work undertaken by the Northern Cape government has been the removal of a large number of stone slabs, the removal of an elevated road surface stretching across the width of the track, and the completion of a new fence to secure the pan from access by animals or vehicles.
‘World’s best race track’
The result has exceeded expectations. Green, in his latest “Bloodhound Diary” update for the BBC News website, wrote in February that wheel tests conducted at Hakskeen Pan in November had enabled Bloodhound performance expert Ron Ayers to come up with a figure for the hardness of the pan – an important consideration, given that each wheel of Bloodhound SSC will be supporting a load of nearly two tonnes.
“The desert hardness is (and here’s a figure you will never use in a pub quiz!) about 400 cubic mm per kiloNewton,” Green wrote. “That means that the wheels only penetrate about 10mm into the surface, even under two tonnes of load. Or put another way, the 2-tonne (20 kN) load only displaces about 8 000 cubic mm of desert soil – about a fifth of the volume of a golf ball!
“This is a very firm surface by anybody’s standards,” Green continued. “Now that the Northern Cape team is finishing up the clearance work, it really is the world’s best race track, just waiting for the world’s first 1 000 mph car to arrive. We’ll be there soon enough.”
When they do arrive, one of the most sparsely populated areas of South Africa will receive an extraordinary amount of global attention. For the Bloodhound Project is not primarily about speed. Rather, it is an international education initiative aimed at inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians by demonstrating these subjects in the most exciting way possible.
“The unique nature of the world land speed record, where the challenge comes from confronting the laws of physics rather than other teams with similar technology, means the Bloodhound Project can share all its data, designs, achievements and setbacks in the process,” the Bloodhound website states.
As a result, the initiative is already being followed in 217 countries, with approximately 7-million learners from 48 countries registered to access Bloodhound information and lesson materials in class. The team has also made presentations to hundreds of thousands of people since its launch at London’s Science Museum in October 2008.
Extreme science, extreme sport
According to Crizelda Cjikela, Northern Cape MEC for Education, the educational and scientific aspects of the project are key to the province’s collaboration with Bloodhound.
“As a government collective, we are obligated to explore all opportunities to develop the province as a hub for technological and scientific advances,” Cjikela said in July 2012, when Andy Green paid a visit to view progress on his Hakskeen Pan race track.
“In recent years, this vision has been substantiated by not only being selected as the preferred site for the Bloodhound attempt, but also by winning the bid to host the Square Kilometre Array,” Cjikela said.
“With the recent announcement that the province’s first university will be established in Kimberley, we are firmly on track to provide our youth with the opportunity to build an incredibly bright future.”
Besides the educational benefits, the land speed record will also create massive media exposure internationally, allowing the province to showcase the unique diversity of its tourism offerings. Since repositioning itself as a premier destination for adventure and extreme sports, the Northern Cape has already attracted niche markets such as skateboarding, waterskiing and even motor racing.
Meanwhile, Dave Rowley from the Bloodhound education team, based full-time in South Africa with the Northern Cape Department of Education, has been developing links with schools, colleges and universities across the country.
South African partners support this programme include Scifest Africa, Sci-Bono, the City of Cape Town, the Sci-Enza science centre, and the South African Institute of Mechanical Engineering.
An ambassador programme has also been launched, with 15 engineers, scientists and speed enthusiasts recruited to help promote and deliver the Bloodhound education programme to schools across South Africa.
Green himself has no doubt about the project’s potential reach. Speaking at the project’s launch in 2008, he said: “I’ve met graduate engineers who are adamant that our previous record was what inspired their career choice as youngsters: that sort of thing makes all the effort worthwhile.
“Bloodhound SSC will be so much faster and, we hope, will fire up every school kid about the science and technology. We’re going to invite everyone to follow our adventure in this, the most exciting and extreme form of motorsport – the world land speed record. Both as a mathematician, and as a Royal Air Force fighter pilot, I can’t think of anything better.”