article image

UK pledges fresh support for revolutionary space engine

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Jun 27, 2013, 7:00 UTC

Sen—A revolutionary engine that can turn an aircraft into an orbiting spaceplane has won fresh backing from the British Government.

The UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, singled out the SABRE project that will power Skylon into space in his 2013 spending review delivered to Parliament.

The hybrid engine - its name stands for Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine - is currently being developed by Reaction Engines, based at Abingdon, near Oxford.

Last year, the engineers developing it, led by Alan Bond, mastered a key factor in its design that was described as the biggest breakthrough in flight technology since the invention of the jet engine.

Praising UK inventiveness and historic successes, Mr Osborne said: “Britain was once the place where the future was invented. From the railway to the jet engine to the World Wide Web.* We can be that country again . . . a huge amount of innovation and discovery still goes on.”

The Chancellor’s report pledged to commit to funding high-priority projects, including SABRE, though further details of the investments were not given.

Until now, spacecraft heading for orbit have had to be launched by conventional rockets because of the amount of fuel needed to be get them into space.

A video demonstrates how SABRE will operate to fly Skylon. Credit: Reaction Engines

Skylon, powered by SABRE engines, will change the game because it will draw oxygen for fuel from the atmosphere as it flies, meaning it needs to carry less fuel in its tanks.

It means the sleek cigar-shaped craft will be able to take off and land at conventional airports, just like a normal jet airliner. But unlike conventional aircraft engines, SABRE switches in flight to become a rocket engine that can boost Skylon to a speed faster than Mach 5, or more than five times the speed of sound.

It works like this. After take-off, SABRE first mixes hydrogen with air it sucks in. Then it switches to rocket mode, using oxygen carried in its own tanks to accelerate into space.

The breakthrough in the engine’s development came when SABRE engineers showed they can 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.

Skylon’s 82-metre long fuselage will be built 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.

Alan Bond, the engineering genius behind Skylon, describes SABRE. Credit: Reaction Engines

Skylon will be able to carry people and cargoes into space where it could dock with the International Space Station and help build new orbiting outposts.

But when it returns to land like a normal aircraft, it can be readied for its next mission in just hours. The new technology will slash launch costs.

This pre-cooling was demonstrated last year to the European Space Agency, which funded development, after 100 successful test runs. ESA confirmed it showed the technology was viable.

As well as launching Skylon, a version of SABRE called Scimitar would be able to power a futuristic airliner LAPCAT to fly from Europe to Australia ina little over four hours.

 *Pedantic note: The Web was actually developed at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, though by a Brit.