As a young boy, I watched in fascination during the epic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, as the Pan-Am space plane took passengers to orbit for travel from a space station to the moon.
Now a small British company has come up with their version of a re-usable space plane. The Skylon. The Skylon currently only exists on paper, but may actually be built.
The company has recently won an important endorsement from the European Space Agency (ESA) after completing key tests on its novel engine technology.
This new engine called the Sabre engine operates like a jet engine in the atmosphere and a rocket in space. If this can be commercialize, the Sabre engine could replace rockets for space access and transform air travel by bringing any destination on Earth to no more than four hours away.
The Sabre engine has a remarkable heat exchanger that can cool air sucked into the engine at high speed from 1,000 degrees Celsius to minus 150 degrees in one hundredth of a second.
This technology removes one of the problems that has limited jet engines to a top speed of about 2.5 times the speed of sound.
With the Sabre engine in jet mode, the air has to be compressed before being injected into the engine’s combustion chambers. Without pre-cooling, the heat generated by compression would make the air hot enough to melt the engine.
The challenge for the engineers was to find a way to cool the air quickly without frost forming on the heat exchanger, which would clog it up and stop it working.
Using a nest of fine pipes that resemble a large wire coil, the engineers have managed to get round this fatal problem that would normally follow from such rapid cooling of the moisture in atmospheric air. They are tight-lipped on exactly how they managed to do it.
“We are not going to tell you how this works,” said the company’s chief designer Richard Varvill, who started his career at the military engine division of Rolls-Royce. “It is our most closely guarded secret.”
The company has deliberately avoided filing patents on its heat exchanger technology to avoid details of how it works, particularly the method for preventing the build-up of frost, from becoming public. Hopefully, they are guarding their valuable trade secret properly.
The Sabre engine could take a plane to five times the speed of sound and an altitude of 25 km, about 20% of the speed and altitude needed to reach orbit. For space access, the engines would then switch to rocket mode to do the remaining 80%.
Reaction Engines believes Sabre is the only engine of its kind in development and the company now needs to raise about 250 million pounds ($400-million) to fund the next three-year development phase in which it plans to build a small-scale version of the complete engine.
Chief executive Tim Hayter believes the company could have an operational engine ready for sale within 10 years if it can raise the development funding.
Of course, this isn’t a new idea, but the British company seems to have a handle on some of the key problems that have plagued these types of spacecraft in the past. It now remains to be seen if a privately funded company can get this technology up and running, or if the economics of space are still too much for commercialization and need to be handled by governments. Time will tell.
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– Ex astris, scientia –
I am and avid amateur astronomer and intellectual property attorney. As a former Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, I am a proud member of the Armed Service Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association working to aid all active duty and veterans in our communities. Connect with me on Google +