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Skylon spaceplane's inventor sees busy spaceports coming soon

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Jan 31, 2015, 2:01 UTC

Sen—Busy spaceports with daily flights into orbit could become reality in just 15 years, according to the inventor of a revolutionary new form of spacecraft propulsion.

Regular launches will be as routine as those portrayed in sci-fi comic strips since the 1950s, Alan Bond believes, thanks to his pioneering spaceship Skylon and its unique SABRE engine.

Bond is Managing Director and Chief Engineer at Reaction Engines, which recently moved into new larger premises at Culham Science Centre (CSC), near Oxford, England. In an exclusive interview with Sen, he talked about the latest progress in developing this air-breathing hybrid engine that will allow an unmanned spacecraft to take off from a conventional runway and fly directly into orbit around the Earth.

A number of private companies have been competing to deliver cargo and crews into low Earth orbit, but all based on conventional rocket propulsion with its associated risks and high costs. So we asked Bond if he still saw SABRE as a game-changer.

He told Sen: “Absolutely. If we manage to pull this off, then by the time we get to 2030, access to space will be more like you see in science fiction films than the way it is today. 

“So regular vehicles flying into orbit and back again on a daily basis, and all that sort of stuff, carrying out all sorts of useful tasks. That will actually be with us and that is something pretty exciting to look forward to.”

SABRE—it stands for Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine—impressed a team from the European Space Agency that validated it in 2012, following which the UK Government pledged to invest £60 million ($90 million) in its development, alongside private capital. 

The engine is also being promoted as capable of powering 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.

The engine’s secret is its heat-exchanger technology that can can cool air entering it from 1,000°C to minus 150°C in just one hundredth of a second whilst preventing ice from forming within the unit. This allows the engine to switch in flight from air-breathing mode at Mach 5.5—twice as fast as a jet—to that of a rocket engine, reaching Mach 25, or 7.5 km per second.

This week, following the move to CSC, Reaction Engines announced a big increase in staffing and other activities to allow them to continue developing SABRE so that a full engine is completed by 2019. Instead of outsourcing construction and testing, the company will have its own bespoke equipment to allow vital engines to be built and tested in-house.

Bond told us: “The move has gone very well. Back in July 2013, the UK government decided it was going to give us some money and that has taken a little while to get sorted out, and to get that money moving.

“But what it has enabled us to do now is to prepare the way and recruit more staff. We’ve grown steadily. If we go back to 2009 we were about 15 people, and now we’re getting ready for quite a major ramp-up of staffing capability. We’re up at about 65 staff this week, and over the next year to 18 months, we’ll probably expand by about another 110 people.

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The shape of things to come: Skylon leaves its hangar to embark on another flight into orbit. Image credit: Reaction Engines

“We’ve recruited some new designers. We were very short of those before because we’ve had to work on a very tight budget in the past, and that has not necessarily always been the optimum way to work.”

Bond added: “On the manufacturing front, when we did all the pre-cooler work back in 2012 and 2013, we used external contractors quite a lot because we had quite a small R&D company. 

“But now we’ve got to the point where we want to build heat exchangers like that on a regular basis, so we’re installing our own massive vacuum furnace and so on. Our own factory will take another year to 18 months to get operational, but then we’ll then be able to build heat exchangers for real spaceplanes! We’re putting in the facilities that we’ll need for future manufacturing in the company over the next 20 to 30 years.

“In 2009 we acquired a couple of small companies that do our fabrication and precision machining. This year, we’re amalgamating those companies on the same site so we can all interact with one another on a daily basis.”

Development of SABRE is currently at what Bond calls Phase 3. He told us: “Phase 3 is a sort of system engineering level where you look at the overall engine concept and sort it out into sub projects, work out all the parameters and make sure the whole engine works as an entity.

“Phase 3a started last January, and we are going to be starting phase 3b in the middle of this year, and that is the preliminary design phase where we start to put real dimensions and configurations around all the engines and their components. And then in parallel with that, Phase 3c is the detailed design for the engine including a lot of test work to ensure it is all going to work. 

“Finally there will be phase 3d, and that’s actually where we get the engine put together and up on test. We were a little late in getting the funding issues sorted, so we slipped a little bit, but some time in 2019 that should see us actually have a basic engine on test.”

Bond told Sen that he has been impressed by the progress on the engine, despite it taking rather longer than he originally envisaged. He said: “It has gone at a snail’s pace compared to what the founders of the company hoped was going to happen. We hoped that we were going to be here ten years ago. It has taken a long time, but I guess that is the way it is in the modern world nowadays.”

So does he now feel that the end is in sight? He replied: “One of my favourite films, from the 1950s, is Destination Moon. Right at the end it says that it is the end of the beginning. I think that is how I actually see it. It’s the end of this particular phase of showing these engines work. I have to be content that that’s been my career’s work.”

For more from my interview with Bond and my thoughts about this inspirational project, subscribers can check out my weekly column here.

A video animation demostrates how Skylon will fly directly from a runway into orbit and back to a landing. Credit: Reaction Engines