The partnership between BAE Systems and Reaction Engines, as well as the investment from the UK government, will help development of a new class of aerospace engines, dubbed SABRE: Synthetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine).
It is the SABRE that makes such amazing speeds possible. The engine operates in two modes to enable the plane to directly access space, called ‘single-stage to orbit.’ In its air breathing mode, the engine will suck in oxygen from the atmospheric air to burn with liquid hydrogen, fuelling the rocket combustion chamber. Once the Skylon is outside Earth’s atmosphere the engine will transition to a conventional rocket mode, switching to an on-board source of liquid oxygen.
Making this all possible will be the cooling. As one of the focal points of innovation, the cooling system will utilise ultra-lightweight heat exchangers that can cool extremely hot airstreams from over 1000°C to minus 150°C in less than a 1/10th of a second.
According to developers, Reaction Engines, aircraft powered by the SABRE will be able to go from standstill on the runway to speeds of over five times the speed of sound (3,839mph/6,178km/h) whilst remaining in the Earth’s atmosphere, and even faster once through the atmospheric barrier. Once through the barrier the engine transitions into a rocket mode enabling spaceflight speeds at orbital velocity, some 25 times the speed of sound (19,190mph/30,890km/h).
However, these speeds are still speculative. The investments from BAE Systems (and partnership) and the UK government should provide the company with a solid foundation to explore their idea, pushing the boundaries of rocket science for public services.
The investment in Reaction Engines is a sign of intent from the UK government, but also comes against a worrying trend of cuts to R&D throughout UK technologies and sciences. While private capital is absolutely necessary as a driver of innovation, it is often government programs that pave the way for private business. This partnership and investment could see the expansion of the already successful British aeronautics industry, driving it into the future – and hopefully, into space!
Image courtesy of: Sira Anamwong / freedigitalphotos.net.