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Britain invests £60 million in Skylon spaceplane

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July 17, 2013

Skylon with the SABRE engine in sutaway

Skylon with the SABRE engine in sutaway

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The British government announced on Tuesday that it has authorized an investment of £60 million in Reaction Engine’s Skylon spaceplane. The funding boost comes after a successful feasibility test of a core component of the spacecraft’s revolutionary engine managed by the European Space Agency (ESA) last November and will be used to further develop the revolutionary SABRE engine, which is designed to power the Skylon into orbit and back without the need for outside boosters or tanks.

The Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE) is a scramjet. That is, it reduces the propellant load because it acts as a jet while in the atmosphere and a rocket in space, so it doesn't have to carry as much oxygen to burn the liquid hydrogen fuel. It’s an idea that’s been around since the 1950s, but getting it to work involves overcoming a major technological hurdle.

The problem is that the limit of the engine is how hot it gets. Above a certain point, even the best metal alloys soften and melt. At hypersonic speeds, the air is coming into the engine at 25 times more force than that of a Category 5 hurricane and the heat is like something blasting out of a cutting torch. Paradoxically, before it can be burned, the air needs to be cooled dramatically, so it passes over a series of heat exchangers that use the cryogenic hydrogen fuel to cool it down from 1,000° C (1,832 ° F) to minus 150° C (minus 302 ° F) in 1/100th of a second.

Skylon with the SABRE engine in sutaway

“Ambient air comes in and is cooled down to below freezing in a fraction of a second,” explained Mark Ford, head of ESA’s propulsion section. “These types of heat exchangers exist in the real world but they’re the size of a factory. The key part of this is that Reaction Engines has produced something sufficiently light and compact that it can be flown.”

When the technology passes to the practical phase it will be used to power the 85-meter (278-ft) Skylon, a true spaceplane designed to take off and land from a conventional runway.

Source: ESA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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14 Comments

Great!

I've been interested in Skylon and the Sabre engine for a long time. It'll be amazing to eventually see it in action! *This* is truly the future of both ordinary flight and spaceflight - a 100% reusable vehicle with incredible speed.

mooseman
17th July, 2013 @ 02:01 am PDT

Of this I approve for now. Global interactive approval should be offered on an item by item basis - this ensures the people who will ultimately benefit will have a part to play - this leads to global co operation and several possible side effect designs become available

MasterG
17th July, 2013 @ 07:25 am PDT

Thunderbird One is go!

Mark Dixon
17th July, 2013 @ 07:25 am PDT

This will be the first "truly green" space launcher!!!

We need it!

Alfred Max Hofbauer
17th July, 2013 @ 10:32 am PDT

60 million? it's a Kit model? :D

Charlie Nudelman
17th July, 2013 @ 11:22 am PDT

Some people never learn. Starting around the speed around mach 5 the system will switch to conventional rocket propulsion, yet it will have only around 5% of the kinetic energy to enter on low earth orbit. This design will have the drawback of accelerating to orbital speed with a heavy turbo-machinery and an over-sized frame. Also the design is forcing the usage of "classic" propellant combination, liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, when other cheaper combinations might result in better designs (http://www.dunnspace.com/alternate_ssto_propellants.htm). After spending a fortune on HOTOL they keep on pushing in the wrong direction. Two stage to orbit is the way to go.

ClauS
17th July, 2013 @ 01:27 pm PDT

The real attraction to me is for international passenger flights. The PanAm 747s that flew me to Asia and back to the US in the 70s have barely changed. 2 hour flights to anywhere on the globe would change our lives in incredibly beneficial ways.

EdC
17th July, 2013 @ 06:39 pm PDT

A scramjet is a Supersonic Combustion ramjet meaning that the relative airspeed through never drops below supersonic velocities; it is a neat trick keeping a fire burning under control in a 700+mph breeze a little like keeping a candle lit in a hurricane. The SABRE does not do this it condenses the oxygen out of the air and pumps it into a rather conventional liquid rocket engine. It is also a neat trick and I hope Skylon works but I don't think it will.

I would go with a large high lift low drag blended wing aerospace plane burning a noncryogenic fuel that is stored in the wings and super chilled LOX. This craft is towed to high altitude by another plane that looks like a Photoshopped joke of too many engines on an airliner.

Slowburn
17th July, 2013 @ 07:18 pm PDT

Elon Musks Hyperloop will get us around the surface of the planet in vastly greater numbers and at a fraction of the cost. Space elevator for the low earth orbit stuff.

Paul Smith
17th July, 2013 @ 10:38 pm PDT

What worries me is that it is just another engine The obvious offshoot for this is war applications - otherwise why do we need to go into space? We should be investing this money in sustainable technologies to pass cost savings onto the needy and make our country free from fossil fuels.

Example Rolls Royce - who work and live in the UK but manufacture in the US and have been reported for avoidance of paying UK taxes - what is the point of this company or similar companies if they support weapons of destruction and think that they can play games with their social responsibilities?

Elsdon Ward
18th July, 2013 @ 03:17 am PDT

@ Alfred Max Hofbauer - "This will be the first "truly green" space launcher!!!" 'Fraid not. 99% of hydrogen is currently made from natural gas.

@ Elsdon Ward - "..why do we need to go into space? " - Well, for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that we are probably going to make this planet not capable of sustaining human life the way things are going! But, mining, energy, fast Earth travel are others.

@ Paul Smith - You get my vote!

Martin Winlow
18th July, 2013 @ 05:22 am PDT

re; Paul Smith

How are you going to build a space elevator without making thousands of orbital launches.

re; Elsdon Ward

Yes there are a few types of satellite with military applications data gathering, navigation, and communication. For weapon delivery conventional ICBMs or atmospheric bombers are the better option.

If you don't want to use fossil fuel or nuclear power orbital solar is the only option for long term practicality.

Slowburn
18th July, 2013 @ 10:52 pm PDT

I am sorry but I just see another Blue Streak missile fiasco looming.

Apart from allowing Whitehall mandarins to see the cricket tests in the afternoon can anyone else justify this?

hkmk23
5th August, 2013 @ 02:25 am PDT

This is British and should stay British!

Matthew George Prince
24th October, 2013 @ 03:24 pm PDT
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