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New boost for revolutionary spaceplane Skylon

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Jul 11, 2012, 7:00 UTC

Sen—Development of the Skylon spaceplane has passed a critical milestone following tests on the key component for its SABRE engine.

The engine, being developed by Reaction Engines Ltd, looks set to revolutionise not only space travel but also air transport around the world.

It promises to allow a new generation of aircraft to fly from one side of the Earth to the other, e.g. the UK to Australia, in just four hours instead of the 22 or so needed nowadays.

But it will also provide sufficient boost to send the Skylon spaceplane into orbit where it could deliver satellites or link up with the International Space Station.

What makes SABRE different from other aircraft engines is a revolutionary ability to switch from an air-breathing mode to that of a rocket engine.

This hybrid function will allow it to power aircraft at up to five times the speed of sound within the atmosphere or directly into Earth orbit at 25 times the speed of sound.

Critical to the operation of this new engine is the ability to cool continuously the incoming airstream from over 1,000⁰C to minus 150⁰C in less than 1/100th of a second. That effectively doubles the current technical limits of jet engine speeds.

The tests, undertaken at Reaction Engines’ facility in Oxfordshire, integrated the ground-breaking flight-weight pre-cooler technology with a jet engine and a novel helium cooling loop, demonstrating the crucial new technologies in the SABRE engine.

UK Science Minister David Willetts recognised the importance of Skylon development yesterday when he visited the Farnborough Airshow and spoke about the UK's future in space.

He said: "The engine being developed by Reaction Engines is a potential game-changer in terms of space technology. This successful testing validates the assessment made of the engine concept by the UK Space Agency back in 2010 and is yet another example of the UK’s world class space industry. It would be a fantastic achievement if we could one day use this home-grown technology for our own commercial space launches."

Mr Willetts said he felt Europe was not ready to grab the opportunity offered by Skylon. He said: "We must formulate a regulatory framework that will allow reusable aircraft-type launchers to operate here. Their SABRE engine already represents 30 years of incredible British R&D. It’s a remarkable world first, and the pace at which they're advancing illustrates the urgency of laying the appropriate groundwork now.


A cutaway of the SABRE engine. Credit: Reaction Engines

"That is why i can announce today that I will be working with Justine Greening at the Department for Transport, to determine how the UK, indeed the whole of Europe, can best position itself to take advantage of space plane activities."

SABRE has taken a team of over 30 British engineers 22 years to develop. Alan Bond, who founded Reaction Engines and has led the research from the start, said: “Over the past two centuries, travel and transport has been powered by the steam engine, the internal combustion engine and, most recently, jet and rocket engines. The SABRE engine is the next logical step.

"SABRE will enable an aircraft to fly anywhere in the world in under 4 hours or a spaceplane to fly into orbit around the Earth—slashing the cost of space travel and creating new commercial opportunities in space. Thanks to the professionalism, expertise and dedication of the incredible team we have at Reaction Engines, this breakthrough puts the UK aerospace industry in pole position.”