How fast is it possible to travel on land?
The world's fastest production car is currently the German-made Bugatti Veyron 16.4, which has a top speed of 258mph. Although a 'road legal' car, it does beg the question of exactly what road you might drive on at that speed? And in any case, it would cost you a cool $1.5 million to own one.
But in October next year plans are in hand for a "car" to travel at a speed which will make the Bugatti look like it's going backwards. The British-based Bloodhound supersonic car project is aiming to set a new land speed record of 800mph.
The current world land speed record is 763mph, set by another British-engineered car, the Thrust SSC, running in the US desert in 1997. The new Bloodhound project is the direct descendant of Thrust, with project director Richard Noble, driver Andy Green and aerodynamics expert Ron Ayers all fulfilling the same roles again.
Together they hope to break the 800mph barrier 20 years on from setting the previous record. Like all great adventures, the project has had its ups and downs and was mothballed last Autumn when the cash ran out. But with new sponsors in place it is up and running again and confident of going for the new record in South Africa next October.
"In the past we've only ever really had funding to plan two to three months ahead," said the project's components chief Conor La Grue. "We're now in a position to go all the way through to taking the record."
Looking more like an earth-bound missile than a car, the Bloodhound will use the jet engine from a Eurofighter-Typhoon just to get itself rolling and reach a speed of around 350mph. It will then get a massive boost from a specially built hybrid solid fuel rocket to take it past the sound barrier and on to 800mph. While the rocket is being sourced from a Norwegian company, other key components including the gearbox have been developed specially for the Bloodhound project.
Testing of the major components is due to begin this autumn before the car is fully assembled ready for initial testing on a runway in Cornwall next Spring. Although these tests will only be at relatively low speeds of around 200mph, they will provide vital data for the project engineers before they move out to South Africa in the summer.
Incredibly – and only if all goes to plan – there is the potential for the Bloodhound to top 1,000mph by burning a different propellant in its rocket. If the new 800mph record is achieved next year, the plan is to extend it using the new rocket fuel in 2018.
The one big question you might reasonably ask about the whole project is... why? Why would anyone ever need to travel on land at 800mph-plus, and why risk lives trying? One answer could be the same at that given by British mountain climber George Mallory when asked why he wanted to climb Everest – "Because it's there".
But projects like the Bloodhound also yield countless engineering innovations, discoveries and developments which find 'real-life applications' in many areas of everyday technology. On top of that, the Bloodhound project is underpinned by a huge education programme in British schools, designed to inspire young people to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects.
More than 5,000 schools have already taken part in learning programmes based on the science of chasing land speed records, with more getting involved all the time. The hope is that among the pupils taking part will be a new generation of word-beating scientists and engineers. Along with the rest of the world, they will be watching with bated breath as the supersonic Bloodhound attempts to sniff out a new record in South Africa next October.