Million-euro boost for new spaceplane

British scientists got a major boost today to help build a new spaceship that can take off from a normal runway and land at the same airport. They won a million-euro grant from the European Space Agency yesterday to help develop engines to power their revolutionary Skylon spaceplane.

An artist's impression of SkylonIt could carry 12 tons of cargo – and one day astronauts – into orbit, using a unique hybrid engine called Sabre. The engine will breathe in air, like a jet, when in the atmosphere but become a rocket engine when in the vacuum of space.

The project is led by Reaction Engines Ltd, of Abingdon, Oxfordshire, working with scientists from Bristol University and the British National Space Centre. It is expected to slash the cost of spaceflight to a tenth of current rates.

The new spaceplane could be a leader in the new field of space tourism and a direct challenge to Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Space giant EADS Astrium are also working on a project for a space jet.

Reaction Engines’ managing director Alan Bond said today: “Traditional throw-away rockets costing more than a $100 million per launch are a drag on the growth of this market.

“The Holy Grail to transform the economics of getting into space is to use a truly re-usable space plane capable of taking off from an airport and climbing directly into space, delivering its satellite payload and automatically returning safely to Earth.

“Years of planning and research by REL on the Skylon vehicle and its unique Sabre air-breathing engine mean that we have an inside track on realising this goal. Skylon could reduce the cost of getting into space by a factor of ten.”

Science minister Lord Drayson said: “This is an example of a British company developing world-beating technology with exciting consequences for the future of space. It is fantastic that Reaction Engines, the British National Space Centre and ESA have successfully secured this public-private partnership arrangement and I look forward to seeing how the project the progresses.”

Picture: An artist’s impression of Skylon in orbit (Reaction Engines Ltd).

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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