British company Reaction Engines are developing an air-breathing rocket engine that utilises both jet turbine and rocket technology. Matthew Stock reports.
Getting into space is an expensive business. But a re-usable spaceplane like this could revolutionise hypersonic flight and make space access much cheaper. That's the ambition of British company Reaction Engines. They've developed the Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine, or SABRE. It will use the oxygen already present in the atmosphere instead of having to carry an on-board oxidiser, such as liquid oxygen. (SOUNDBITE) (English) MARK THOMAS, MANAGING DIRECTOR OF REACTION ENGINES, SAYING: "It's a synthesis of rocket and jet engine technologies. It's a device that would power a vehicle to more than five times the speed of sound; so more than 4,000 miles-per-hour, and up to 20 times the speed of sound if it's going into orbit." But at those speeds, the temperature coming in at the front of the engine is a thousand degrees Celsius The unique pre-cooler technology inside SABRE solves this problem, and is a world first, according to Reaction Engines. (SOUNDBITE) (English) SIMON HANKS, HEAD OF ADVANCED MANUFACTURING AT REACTION ENGINES, SAYING: "Essentially, it is an extremely efficient heat exchanging system, which will effectively mount on the front of our new engine design and very efficiently cool incoming air of a very high temperature of about a thousand degrees C [Centigrade], to minus 150 degrees C in a fraction of a second; approximately one-hundredth of a second." A SABRE-powered vehicle like their Skylon concept design won't need to carry hundreds of tons of on-board oxidant on its way to orbit. Nor will it require costly first-stage rockets that are jettisoned once the oxidant is used up. It currently costs about 100 million dollars to launch a craft into space. Reaction Engines says their technology would reduce this by a factor of ten. And it could eventually lead to the next generation of hypersonic commercial aircraft. (SOUNDBITE) (English) MARK THOMAS, MANAGING DIRECTOR OF REACTION ENGINES, SAYING: "The concept of a re-usable space plane is the Holy Grail of space access. But... the range of operation is extraordinary. There's not another engine anywhere in the world even in people's imagination that can achieve that range of operation." The company has received more than 100 million dollars of funding from BAE Systems and the British government. They're aiming for a full engine demonstration by the end of the decade... with plans to then start work on a re-usable spaceplane.