Step aside Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. There’s a new entry in the space transportation race that could make traveling between atmospheres a reality for the average consumer. Reaction Engines Limited (REL), a British company that specializes in rocket technology, unveiled a game-changing engine that not only pushes the limits of speed, but also makes flying in and out of space easier.
Impressively, the Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE) is capable of operating without the help of a ferry, which is what Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, Blue Origin’s New Shepherd and even SpaceX’s Dragon capsule relies on during launch. Like a rebellious teenager, the hybrid engine is designed to takeoff and land as it pleases. If all goes according to plan, engineers will have a full working prototype by 2020. Unmanned flight tests are scheduled to start in early 2025.
“Today’s announcement represents an important landmark in the transition of Reaction Engines from a company that has been focused on the research and testing of enabling technologies for the SABRE engine to one that is now focused on the development and testing of the world’s first SABRE engine,” said Mark Thomas, managing director of REL.
Under the Hood
The SABRE is packed with the latest technologies that can help reduce the cost and burden of spaceflight. On Earth, it works like a normal jet engine by consuming oxygen and burning liquid hydrogen fuel. When it reaches space, it switches modes to adapt to the new environment. Liquid oxygen is applied to help provide thrust for the engine as it cuts through the vacuum.
A major hurdle that space engines face is frost. Reaching new heights equates to dealing with bone-chilling temperatures. For rocket engines, this is a problem because icy build up (if not addressed properly) can reduce the overall efficiency of the working parts. REL’s solution to the prevailing issue is a modified pre-cooler system that manages air from over 1,800°F to -240°F in less than 0.01 seconds. It uses a methanol injection to streamline the whole process.
REL isn’t stopping at creating the most powerful hybrid engine in the world. The company plans to build its own flagship spacecraft, called Skylon. The space plane will not a have a pilot, but instead rely on the guidance of man-powered computers from the ground. In orbit, the vessel can reach blistering speeds of Mach 27, which is 27 times the speed of sound! Helping make all this a reality is BAE Systems. The aerospace group recently provided $31.7 million in fresh funds to boost the development of REL’s projects. Prior to the investment, the company received $92 million directly from the UK government.
“This investment by BAE Systems reflects the strength of British engineering and technology and our ambitions as a leading space nation,” said MP Jo Johnson, minister for universities and science in the UK. “I am sure that this partnership will strengthen both organisations – helping to create more jobs in the UK’s growing space sector and ultimately to make the SABRE engine a reality.”