Major boost for Skylon space plane

 

British engineers have made the biggest breakthrough in flight technology since the invention of the jet engine. They have successfully tested a new propulsion system that could power a space plane to orbit and also cut an airliner’s journey times from London to Sydney to less than four hours.

Artist's impression of Skylon in orbit

Artist’s impression of Skylon in orbit. Credit: Reaction Engines Ltd

It is thanks to a revolutionary new engine called Sabre that has been invented by Reaction Engines, based at Abingdon near Oxford. And it paves the way for the next step towards their reusable space plane called Skylon to be built. (I’ve written about Skylon before for the space website Sen.com).

Unlike conventional aircraft engines, Sabre is a two-in-one air-breathing rocket engine that can boost a plane to Mach 5.5, or more than five times the speed of sound, and a height of 30 km.

After taking off from a runway, the plane first mixes hydrogen together with air sucked in from the atmosphere. Then it switches to rocket mode, using oxygen from its own tanks to accelerate into space.

Critical to the success of the new propulsion was being able to cool the incoming airstream from a temperature of over 1,000 C to -150 C in less than a hundredth of a second without the engine frosting up.

Now Reaction Engines have proved they can do this in tests overseen by the European Space Agency which supplied funding. The agency said: “The pre-cooler test objectives have all been successfully met and ESA are satisfied that the tests demonstrate the technology required for the SABRE engine development.”

SKYLON SABRE Heatex from Reaction Engines Ltd on Vimeo.

And Science Minister David Willetts said: “This is a remarkable achievement for a remarkable company. Reaction Engines has shown the world that Britain remains at the forefront of technological innovation. This technology could revolutionise the future of air and space travel.”

Reaction Engines have carried out more than 100 test runs of the new cooling system, using a jet engine to demonstrate that their new Sabre design will work.

Alan Bond, the engineering genius behind the invention, said: “These successful tests represent a fundamental breakthrough in propulsion technology. The Sabre engine has the potential to revolutionise our lives in the 21st century in the way the jet engine did in the 20th Century. This is the proudest moment of my life.”

The company will now look for £250 million investment for the next step towards developing two planes, the hypersonic LapCat that will be able to carry 300 passengers around the world in less than four hours, and Skylon which can carry astronauts, tourists, satellites and space station components into orbit.

Skylon takes off for another mission into space

Skylon takes off for another mission into space. Credit: Reaction Engines Ltd

Skylon resembles a sleek aircraft with 82-meter long fuselage made from carbon-fiber reinforced plastic with a black ceramic skin to protect against the heat of re-entry. It will be powered by two Sabre engines.

When Skylon returns to land like a normal aircraft, it can be readied for its next mission in just hours. It will cut the cost of a space launch to around £6.5 million, a tenth of the current cost, making it an exciting possible contender to replace the work of the space shuttle.

Speaking exclusively to Skymania, Alan said: “We’ve already shown we can fly from Brussels to Sydney in 4h 40m and that is under current air traffic control conditions, that’s not some hypothetical, theoretical sort of flight plan, that’s a realistic flight plan.

“It won’t be a rich man’s aircraft. Obviously you have to make certain assumptions of what is going to happen in 25 years time. If hydrogen fuel is not with us now, it will be by then, so you have to make some assumptions about what that fuel infrastructure is going to cost. But the indications are that all first class and business class people would go by that at the same ticket price relatively as they pay at the present time to take 21 hours to get there.”

We asked Alan if he worried about running up against vested interests from established players in the aerospace industry. He replied: “We’ve already run up against that. But we’re here with a piece of test kit – this isn’t a mock-up, this is a piece straight off our test site. So the people with a vested interest had better start taking notice.”

Annotated cutaway of the new Sabre engine design

Annotated cutaway of the new Sabre engine design. Credit: Reaction Engines Ltd

 

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