Vision of a spaceport of the future, with Skylon leaving its hangar for another mission into orbit. Image credit: Reaction Engines.

Feb 1, 2015 Let's welcome an exciting new era in getting into space

Sen—The last week has been rounded off by launches on opposite sides of the world. Yesterday, United Launch Alliance put a NASA Earth-watching probe into orbit from California, while today saw the liftoff of a Russian Proton from Kazakhstan with a giant communications satellite.

As usual, both launches relied on the tried and tested—but hugely expensive—process of using powerful rockets to reach space. Stages that are basically huge fuel tanks are jettisoned at enormous cost.

The Space Shuttle was an attempt to bring some recycling to the business, and ESA will test a spaceplane of its own this month when IXV makes a test flight. But both these projects have relied on conventional rockets to escape Earth’s gravity.

SpaceX are attempting to bring down the costs somewhat by developing rocket stages that can soft-land themselves ready for re-use after a launch, and tests show that they are close to achieving that goal. 

But all the while work advances on a revolutionary new way of getting into space, an exciting alternative to traditional rockets, that has the potential to change everything. I am talking about Skylon.

This is the spaceship model that promises to make spaceports operate more like airports. An engineering breakthrough by British inventor Alan Bond and his team at Reaction Engines will allow spacecraft to take off from runways, just like your holiday or business flight, but then to fly directly into orbit.

It is all thanks to its air-breathing SABRE—the Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine—that collects some of its fuel from the atmosphere as it flies, meaning less weight to carry for the tanks on board. Though the engine itself has still to be built, the technology has been proved to the satisfaction of an evaluation team from the European Space Agency.

SABRE has been described as the biggest breakthrough since the invention of the jet engine. And the idea that a complete spacecraft becomes as reusuable as a conventional airliner is clearly going to do wonders in bringing down the price of getting to, and working in, space.

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How Skylon will look in flight as it heads for orbit, having taken off from a runway without the aid of any rocket boosters. Image credit: Reaction Engines

The UK Government has invested in the project, alongside private enterprise. And interest in the technology has already been shown by the US Air Force. This week, Sen revealed that Reaction Engines are greatly expanding their workforce.

But is there a danger that conventional operators with vested interests will seek to kill off Skylon? Or will we really see a new model of spaceport appear across the world to take advantage of this innovative design? 

Bond saw disappointment before when his project to build a forerunner to Skylon, called HOTOL, was killed off by the UK Government in the 1980s. Now I believe his invention is too big a breakthrough to ignore and I can’t wait to see the first Skylon take off some time in the next decade!

As well as powering the Skylon spaceplane, SABRE could drive an advanced airliner called LAPCAT—Long-term Advanced Propulsion Concepts and Technologies—from one side of the world to the other in less than four hours.  I asked Bond which craft will be first to use his revolutionary engine?

He told me: “I see the access to space being first because it is in competition with things that are so horrendously expensive and inconvenient at the moment. That to me is clearly where the initial application is. 

“It’s not a huge transition from that to something like LAPCAT. But the LAPCAT vehicle will be a very expensive development, double the cost of the programme for getting into orbit, because obviously it has to fit in with the extreme safety standards in aviation.”

With Skylon potentially able to turn round from one mission to another in just hours, it will be capable of all sorts of tasks, from delivering satellites into orbit, and supplies and astronauts to space stations, to assembling interplanetary spacecraft in orbit. 

What an exciting vision for the future, where spaceports offer routine and easy access to the final frontier!