In this country we have a proud history of aeronautical firsts. We’re responsible for creating the first allied jet aircraft, the Gloster Meteor, the world’s first fully vertical take-off and landing capable aircraft, the Siddeley Hawker Harrier, and even the world’s first jet airliner, the De Havilland comet (which was built in Hatfield don’t you know). But now we have the chance to make another first, to design and build the world’s first, commercially viable space plane.

In terms of the aerospace industry, reaction engines, a small British engineering firm based in oxford, is reasonably new to the scene, but it is already making huge waves in a world dominated by giants such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and NASA. Their most recent innovation is the SABRE engine; a revolutionary combined cycle, air breathing rocket engine. Simplified, the engine works by burning liquid hydrogen fuel.  At ground level, and in the atmosphere, this fuel is burnt using the oxygen from the air, much like a conventional jet engine accelerating the plane to nearly Mach 5.5, or five and a half times the speed of sound. However, when the craft reaches a higher altitude where the density of the air is not sufficient to continue combustion the air intake of the engine is closed and the engine begins to inject liquid oxygen into the hydrogen mixture, creating, in a sense, a rocket engine, increasing the crafts speed to escape velocity. This radical idea means that it’s just as easy for the craft to travel from London to Sydney, like a typical jet airliner, as it is for it to travel from Cape Kennedy to the International Space Station.

As a practical use for this engine, reaction engines are in the process of designing SKYLON, a reusable, cheap to run space plane. In theory SKYLON should be able to take off from a conventional runway, fly directly into orbit and then return and land on the same runway, much like a conventional aircraft. This creates a huge reduction in operating costs as now special infrastructure or technology is needed to launch the aircraft, no fancy launchers, ramps or launch pads, simply a long stretch of tarmac. This makes it almost 100x cheaper than conventional technology and as a result it can be purchased and used by countries such as Britain that don’t have the money or space to build a dedicated launch site. As a further endorsement for SKYLON the ESA (European space agency) has given the project their stamp of approval, saying “…the SKYLON vehicle can be realised given today’s current technology and successful engine development” and have donated around £1 million to the project fund, enough that they can now begin to build and test various parts of the SABRE engine, such as the engine pre-cooler, which cools the hypersonic air entering the engine down from nearly 1000 degrees centigrade to around -150 degrees centigrade.

This craft is a revival of British ingenuity not seen since the times of the British space project in the late 1960’s and could be a fantastic way of bringing this country to the forefront of world leading technology.  However, not everything is fine and dandy. It is predicted that for the project to be completed funding in the region of £7-12 billion will be needed, and in such a tough economic climate, money like this is hard to come by, and with the last British space programme, the black arrow rocket project, being killed off from a withdrawal of funding, it’s a real possibility that this fantastic idea, may never actually get off the ground.


By Alex Davis