Technology

Mar 1, 2015

Go anywhere on Earth and above

The British company Reaction Engines is developing a commercial space plane called "Skylon" and the new airship is drawing attention from everywhere. Even from the European Space Agency.

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Reaction Engines is calling their technology "the greatest advance in propulsion since the jet engine". And it might be. If the Skylon spaceplane and the groundbreaking Sabre engine become a commercial project, any passenger, anywhere in the world will be capable of flying from ground to space on a reusable, reliable and cost-effective ship.

Reaction was founded in 1989 by Alan Bond and the principal two engineers from Rolls Royce behind the RB545 engine program, John Scott-Scott and Richard Varvill.

Alan Bond had begun work on rocket engines in 1982 with a view to overcoming the inadequate characteristics of existing rocket-based expendable launch vehicles. Within this work Alan realized that the use of heat exchangers within rocket engine cycles can greatly increase their efficiency by allowing them to use atmospheric air to burn in the combustion chambers when flying in the atmosphere like a jet (rather than using heavy liquid oxygen stored in on-board tanks) and extracting heat where it causes a problem while using that heat to power the turbo machinery in the engine. Seems complex, but according to the company, the unique Sabre engine will simplify commercial flight.

From 1989-2000, Reaction Engines focused on producing a robust technical design for the new Sabre engine and the Skylon space plane, that it could be used to power. This work was supported by a program of laboratory work to underpin the innovative designs including in the areas of aerothermodynamics, propulsion, structures and control technology. Thus, the company began to attract increasing levels of private investment as well as government support and activities were expanded to undertake an intensive program of research to demonstrate the full scale light-weight heat exchanger technology as well as the manufacturing techniques needed for commercial lightweight heat exchanger production.

In order to provide independent validation of the technological progress being made and to support continued private investment, experts from the European Space Agency, at the request of the UK government, were assigned to review and report on work undertaken. According to these experts "a ground test (…) will be a critical milestone in the development of this program and a major breakthrough in propulsion worldwide." This report actually granted the British company a 1 million euro contract with ESA, so Reaction Engines can study the use of Skylon as the new European space launch vehicle, opening a new age in space exploration and giving the developers the trust they needed to carry on with the entire project.

ESA's approval of the Sabre project was one of the most important events in Reaction Engines' history. This allows the company to proceed with development, not only of tyhe engine, but also of the plane.

Skylon will be able to perform a multitude of tasks, from carrying passengers around Earth to delivering cargo payloads and personnel to the International Space Station. And still be able to come back to the ground and land like a regular plane. Costs will also plunge, as the Skylon will be much less expensive to operate, when compared to existing space flight technology in use, which consists solely on rockets and capsules, after the shutdown of NASA's Space Shuttle program, back in 2011.

With an expected length of 82 meters, the fuselage will be over 6 meters in diameter, allowing for a spacious interior, ideal for cargo and passengers. The maximum payload is estimated to reach 12 tons, more than enough to grant Reaction Engines with a comfortable position within the space transport industry.

But Reaction Engines is not stopping on Sabre engines and Skylon. A new project, called LAPCAT will use a enhanced version of the engines called Scimitar. Bigger, faster, more powerful, these new engines will propel the LAPCAT over mach 5 (five times the speed of sound, 6174 kilometers an hour), which will make anyone, departing from virtually anywhere to hurl half-way across the planet in about 4 hours, taking mankind back to faster-than-sound air travels after the demise of the Concord.


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