Building the astonishing 1,000 mph Bloodhound SSC rocket car (pictures)

Take a close look at the rocket-powered car that's set to achieve speeds of 1,000mph, including components built by 3D printers.

Andrew Lanxon
Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.
Andrew Lanxon
1 of 46 Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Meet the Bloodhound SSC -- the car that will be propelled by a jet engine and a cluster of rockets to hit a top speed of 1,000mph, thereby setting a new world land-speed record.

It's a phenomenal machine, with a mind-boggling set of facts to match: Its engines generate 135,000 horsepower (equal to 180 Formula 1 cars), it travels a mile in only 3.6 seconds and it uses the latest technologies, including 3D printing, in its construction.

The car is being developed in Britain by a team comprising of military and aerospace experts and over 250 separate companies, providing skills, labour and materials.

The previous record of 763mph was set by the Thust SSC -- a UK team that included various members of the Bloodhound gang.

The new record attempt will be given a test run in South Africa in 2016, before returning for its actual record attempt in 2017.

The car is being shown off in a free exhibition in London this weekend, but we took a look under the hood of this rocket-powered beast during its production to find out what's required in building a 1,000mph car.

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One of the core components is this EJ200 jet engine, made by Rolls Royce and is more typically found powering Eurofighter Typhoon jet fighter planes.

The jet engine will take the car to a speed of 600mph, at which point a cluster of NAMMO rockets will fire, taking the car up to its top speed.

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This is the main chassis in which the jet and rocket engines will be housed. It's made from a variety of materials, but the outside panels are constructed from titanium, riveted in place by over 11,000 rivets.

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At full speed, the car will travel the length of three football pitches (or soccer fields, if you will) in 1 second. If you blink, the time it takes you to open your eye again will mean that you miss the car pass. It's that fast.

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Meet RAF Wing Commander Andy Green. He's the guy who's brave enough to drive the Bloodhound at its top speed. Rather him than me.

Wg Cdr Green is the current record land-speed record holder (set in the Thrust SSC car) and was the first person to break the sound barrier on land.

"We're taking this car faster even than any aeroplane is able to achieve," he explained.

"I'm not talking just about getting a new land speed record -- we're trying to push forward the boundaries of human endeavour."

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This is Wg Cdr Green's cockpit. It's effectively his office. It's a little different from the CNET office.

"The cockpit we had in 1997 [in the Thrust SSC] had a very 80s look. That's because that's the technology we had available at the time," he remarked.

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It's been specifically designed for him, with a custom-made carbon fibre seat and pedals and buttons all at exactly the right distance for him.

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The steering wheel is made from titanium which has been 3D printed to give the absolute best ergonomic grip for Wg Cdr Green.

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This is really not a hobbyist's weekend project.

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This is the back end of that monstrous jet engine. If you're stood here when it's on, you're going to have a bad time.

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"Every single thing that could go wrong has been looked at -- there are systems in place that allow me to manually stop the car with parachutes if we get a complete systems failure," Wg Cdr Green said.

"The tricky bit when you're sitting level then being squashed into your seat [by the force of acceleration], the gravity feels like it's coming from all directions. Your brain gets very confused in those situations. Suddenly, it feels like I'm hanging upside down. It's something that jet pilots have to train to. It feels like you're laying on your back driving straight up."

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These huge bits of metal will provide support for the jet and rockets. They're actually milled from single slabs of strengthened aluminium.

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This is the view Wg Cdr Green sees from his cockpit. It's hardly a great view, but then he doesn't need to dodge traffic.

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By being machined from single pieces of metal, there are far fewer weak points that could come apart once the chassis begins to vibrate at high speed.

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It's an imposing piece of engineering, even during these stages of development.

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These arches -- or "ribs" -- are also each milled from individual pieces of metal.

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Beneath the rocket is where the fuel tank will sit.

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And here is the fuel tank. The fuel being used is called High Test Peroxide, and 1,000 litres of it will be held in this tank.

The fuel is passed through a silver mesh and then through the solid fuel. In this case, the solid fuel is rubber from old car tyres which reacts with the peroxide and that's what causes the flame.

The tank is made from stainless steel, which is the metal least likely to react with the fuel.

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This front section of the car is known as the "goat's head" due to the fact that it vaguely resembles a goat's skull.

Odd name aside, it's an impressive component. It took 151 man-days from a five-man team to mill the goat's head from single chunks of metal.

Four chunks were used, totalling 800kg in weight, which was reduced by 95 percent during the 105 days of milling.

"This is engineering art," engineer Conor La Gru remarked.

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This is Lance Corporal Ryan Kerr, one of the team of military professionals working on the Bloodhound project and, as I found out when he took me on a tour of the car, a thoroughly nice guy.

"At the moment there's about five or six of us from the military," he explained. "The opportunity came up for some of us to come and work with these seriously clever people. I've been here only a couple of months but some of us have been living here 6 to 9 months.

"We get to bring our knowledge, as well as learn a lot from people here. Aside from the military, the majority of people come from a motoring and aerospace background."

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The car will be driven across an area of desert in South Africa called the Hakskeen Pan. "I went to visit all the potential surfaces and the best surface in the world for this is in South Africa," driver Wg Cdr Green said. It wasn't a perfect environment just yet though.

"They have cleared just under 21 million square metres for the track -- they have lifted 23,000 tonnes of stones by hand over the last four years."

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Would LCpl Kerr drive the car? "Personally, I don't think I could ever get it to 1,000mph," he admitted.

"Andy's had so much experience with these speeds in jets. Anybody could jump in that cockpit and press some buttons to get going, but you need someone who's experienced and has the knowledge of those speeds to stay safe. You've also got to train your body physically to withstand the G-forces that you'll experience.

"I think fighter pilots can go up to about 4 or 5G. In deceleration, he'll be hitting around 3G. If something did go wrong and the car flipped up, at those speeds when it's acting essentially like a sail, it'd be the equivalent of about 30G -- it's unsurvivable."

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The project isn't only about hitting ludicrous speeds. The Bloodhound team hope to inspire the next generation of Britons to get involved in engineering.

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More than 5,600 primary and secondary schools across the UK have signed up to use materials from Bloodhound about engineering in their classrooms.

More than 200 schools in South Africa -- particularly in the area where the car will perform its run -- are also involved in Bloodhound's education programs.

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If the instrument screens cut out in an electricity failure, these analogue dials made by Rolex will continue to show vital information.

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As a compulsive button-presser, I'd struggle to drive this car without wanting to flip every switch I saw, which would probably turn the Bloodhound into a ball of flames.

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There are three main instrument panels. The centre screen measures performance -- distance, speed and time. It gives cues when certain speeds are hit, telling Andy when to fire boosters or, on the way back, when to fire the parachutes to slow down.

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The other panels indicate the jet performance and wheel load (whether the spread of weight is even across all the wheels -- if not, thrusters need to be adjusted).

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This wheel is just for show. The actual wheel, Ryan explained, won't have tyres, as even the most high-performance tyres can only withstand around 300 mph, before being shredded.

The Bloodhound's wheels are being milled from single pieces of aluminium. They're currently being tested by Rolls Royce, being spun at 10,500 RPM (or around 1,200 mph) to test their tolerances at such high speeds.

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"It's going to be hot in there," says Green. "We're in the desert and there's no air conditioning." Along with his four-layer safety suit, Green will be wearing a customised racing helmet, with an oxygen system taken from Typhoon fighter jets.

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"A 12-mile track sounds a long way, but it takes under 2 minutes to cross it.

"When braking, I'm decelerating at 60 mph per second. Imagine driving a car at 60 mph and coming to a complete stop within one second." That's some serious stopping power.

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This is a mockup of what the car will look like when it's all finished and painted.

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It's surprisingly big when you're stood in front of it. I'm not sure I'd want to sit in what is essentially a chair with a rocket strapped to it.

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Every bit of the car has been designed to be as aerodynamic as possible. The front section will be subjected to three tonnes per square metre of pressure at 1,000 mph.

It also has ballistic armour to protect Green if a stone bounces up during the drive.

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The large round hole on top is for the EJ200 jet engine. Below is where the cluster of rockets will sit.

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The car is being put together in a warehouse on an industrial estate near Bristol, South West England. It's not the most auspicious surroundings for such an important vehicle.

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Various components that will find their way into the car. Those springs are apparently for the suspension, rather than to cushion the seat for Andy.

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The workshop is jam-packed with trays full of nuts and bolts, screwdrivers and giant wrenches. If you've ever fancied building a robot, this is the place to be.

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On the right is a model of the air-intake. On the left is what looks like a beanbag. It's actually a bag that gets put inside the air-intake and inflated in order to push on the carbon fibre frame and test its flexibility.

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These sensors test how much the body of the air-intake flexes while the bag pushes on it.

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When being driven, more pressure will come from outside the car as it passes the sonic barrier and shockwaves travel over the chassis.

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This is the nose cone. It's carbon fibre, of course, and seems to be dangerously sharp.

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If a cupboard has that many warning signs on it, you know it contains something really cool.

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It's like the most difficult Meccano challenge ever.

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These are the computers that will be monitoring the car as it's being driven.

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They'll be housed in this mission control trailer, which will be shipped out to South Africa when the time comes.

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