UK company developing a new spaceplane
The Shuttle is due to be put in to retirement shortly. This will lead to a need for a means of supplying the International Space Station, NASA awarded to the companies SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation in 2008. Several companies are planning for a replacement to the Shuttle. It is interesting that we now look towards companies, rather than governments to fund leading edge development.
One company which is drawing much interest is Reaction Engines, in the UK, and their proposed Skylon Spaceplane. The term Spaceplane refers to the fact that it takes off and lands like a conventional plane, but can also fly in to orbit taking a payload of over 12 tonnes.
The managing director is well known in aviation circles, Alan Bond – in the 1980s he was behind the ill-fated HOTOL project. He was also involved with Blue Streak in the late 1950s, when the UK was a leader in the space race – until the UK pulled the plug on the funding and cancelled the project. This time the European Union is putting money in to the project. Their interest is in the Skylon’s key concept, its Sabre propulsion system. It is part jet engine, part rocket engine. It burns hydrogen and oxygen to provide thrust – but in the lower atmosphere this oxygen is taken from the atmosphere. The ‘challenge’ is that gasses at entry are at 1000 deg C, but in 1/100 of a second are cooled to just 130 deg C, prior to being compressed and burnt with the hydrogen. The engine is capable of very high speed, with excellent thrust over the entire flight, from the ground to very high altitude, with high efficiency throughout. In addition, unlike scramjets or ramjets the engine can be easily tested on the ground, which massively cuts testing costs.
There are two versions of the Reaction Engines design, the suborbital London to Sydney trip in 90min version and the Mach25 orbiter version. What is currently called the A2, the Reaction Engine design for the ESA hypersonics projects, has been praised by ESA. It may even threaten the development of the space elevator – see my earlier post.
ESA already posses a reliable rocket in the form of the Ariane rocket. However, the future lies in spaceplanes. Cheaper and easier to operate, and fully re-usable. UK science minister Lord Drayson recently told the BBC “Britain is well placed here. The Skylon project is a good example; but I’d also point to Surrey Satellite Technology Limited with their micro-satellites that are a fraction of the price of conventional satellites. We’re in a promising position as a country to be working on those areas of technology that are applicable to the future of space research”. The key to any nations success in this arena is is to use a truly reusable space-plane, which can take off from an airport, climb directly into space, deliver its satellite payload and automatically return safely to Earth.