Getting into orbit is an expensive business, one that normally involves sitting atop a large powerful rocket. However, this traditional approach not only makes launches expensive, but also ensures that the rockets used, like America’s Saturn V and Russia's Soyuz, are essentially one-use-only vehicles.
But now, thanks to a pledged investment of £60 million by the UK government into British company Reaction Engines, the day of the reusable ‘space plane’ may have suddenly leapt a lot closer.
The reason for that is Sabre, an acronym for Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine, a truly world leading technology that has been hailed as the biggest breakthrough in aviation since the development of the jet engine itself.
The Sabre engine is something very special because it will enable the development of what is technically known as a ‘single stage to orbit’ (SSTO) vehicle that is capable of taking off from a traditional runway, and ascending into orbit, before landing back on Earth when its mission is over.
So very soon Sabre will be finding its way into Skylon, a space plane capable of accelerating to speeds of 19,000 mph.
That Skylon is able to do this is down to one thing - the Sabre engine’s revolutionary cooling system that allows it to overcome an obstacle that prevents normal jet engines from reaching space.
As speeds increase, conventional jet engines overheat, unable to handle the rise in the temperature of the air that’s entering them before they can build up sufficient thrust to leave the atmosphere.
Sabre on the other hand, overcomes this problem thanks to a unique cooling system. Using an array of thin pipes filled with condensed helium, it draws heat from incoming air before it can reach the engine itself. This dramatically chills the air temperature down from 1000° to -150°C in just one hundredth of a second, without any risk of icing.
Thanks to this cooling system, unlike conventional rockets, the Sabre rocket engine is able to operate in two distinct modes. At lower altitudes, just as with a conventional gas turbine engine, it can draw in oxygen from the atmosphere to fuel combustion, meaning Skylon won’t have to carry oxygen to power the early part of the flight. This immediately improves the space plane’s thrust to weight ratio, and also means it can be used time and time again because it doesn’t ‘de-construct’ by having to drop off empty fuel tanks.
This should dramatically reduce the cost of space flight and could even make space tourism a more commercial proposition.
The first test flights are scheduled for 2019, and given that Skylon will have the capacity to carry 15 tonnes of cargo on each trip, almost double what the European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle – or ATV – can carry, deliveries to the International Space Station are pencilled in for just three years later.
It is estimated that 21,000 new jobs could be created by this new technology and spark a new race into space, one in which Britain will be at the forefront.
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