(Sen) - Engineers have begun a series of critical tests that could determine the future of a revolutionary new engine technology.
The Skylon spaceplane, designed by British aerospace company Reaction Engines Ltd, is aiming to be a fully-reusable, orbital space vehicle that would take off and land like a conventional airliner – but on a longer, reinforced runway.
At the heart of Skylon is the Sabre (Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine), which operates like a jet engine at low altitudes but turns into a rocket engine to blast into space.
When the craft takes off it operates in “air-breathing” mode, allowing the engines to gather oxygen from the air, which is mixed with liquid hydrogen from internal tanks. But as Skylon would travel at five times the speed of sound (Mach 5) the air being sucked into its engines would be heated by friction to 1,000C – far too hot for the engine to utilise.
This month’s tests will focus on the critical “pre-cooler” system needed to chill the incoming air to a usable temperature.
The Sabre pre-cooler installed and ready for testing. Credit: Reaction Engines Ltd
The pre-cooler’s intricate cooling system uses freezing, high-pressure helium to chill the air to -140C before it passes into the engine’s combustion chamber where it is mixed with hydrogen and ignited to produce thrust.
What makes the system special is that fact that Skylon fills up with oxygen on the go as it flies through the atmosphere, meaning it doesn’t have to launch with a full tank, greatly reducing its weight. Another key part of the design is its ability to chill the air enough to reduce its volume, meaning the craft doesn’t need to carry heavy compressors.
“The test programme is going well and we are very satisfied with the results so far”, Alan Bond, Managing Director of Reaction Engines Ltd, told Sen.
“We expect to complete the main body of work before the end of June and are hoping to exhibit the precooler at Farnborough in July.”
The latest test is one in a series of key technology demonstrations that could determine whether Reaction Engines can attract the £250 million of investment they need to move into the next phase of development.