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Skylon to be studied as potential ESA launch vehicle

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Aug 7, 2013, 23:00 UTC

Sen—The UK’s revolutionary Skylon spaceplane took a big step towards becoming a major new launch vehicle for Europe this week.

Its inventors, Reaction Engines Ltd, signed a contract with the European Space Agency for a one million euro study that could see it become the next European Launch System.

The study, to be completed by the end of the year, will determine whether Skylon, which will use a ground-breaking new hybrid rocket engine that allows it to take off from a runway, can meet ESA requirements for accessing space from the early 2020s.

It will have to meet the agency’s demands to keep costs down, and to show flexibility and responsiveness. Fans of Skylon are confident that it will pass with flying colours because the fact it is reusable and can be turned around from landing to a fresh launch in hours means it should slash the cost of getting into orbit.

Experts will check out ESA’s present launch site, Kourou in French Guiana, to see whether it will be a suitable location for the strengthened runway and other facilities that Skylon would need for its regular flights into orbit.

This element of the study is to be carried out by UK-based Grafton Technology, supported by Civil engineers Jacobs. Grafton is a space systems consultancy and support service provider that has been involved in space programmes around the world for more than 20 years

Another part of what is called the Skylon-based European Launch Service Operator contract will be a study by Qinetiq Space in Belgium of the various Thunderbird 2-type pods that might sit within the spaceplane’s payload bay, to ensure maximum flexibiity of missions.


How Skylon could deliver satellites into orbit. Credit: Reaction Engines Ltd

Qinetiq, which has a branch in the UK, designs and builds small satellites, satellite components and scientific instruments for space travel. The Belgian division is itself the most important supplier of small satellites for ESA.

Also involved in the payload study will be the UK’s 42 Technology Limited, a product design and development consultancy based at St Ives, near Cambridge.

Another major player in the space business, ThalesAlenia Space in Italy, will contribute to the ESA study be designing Skylon’s upper stage systems for deploying communications satellites into geosynchronous orbit.

The latest positive step for Skylon, which has been designed by engineer Alan Bond’s team at Reaction Engines, follows a decision by the UK Government last month to invest £60 million in developing its revolutionary engine.

The 82-metre-long sleek spacecraft will be fitted with two SABRE engines, standing for Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine.

SABRE, which is being developed by Bond at Abingdon, near Oxford, will first mix hydrogen with air sucked in from the atmosphere when it takes off. Then it switches to rocket mode, using oxygen carried in its own tanks to accelerate into space.

Bond’s team proved they could overcome technical challenges and cool the incoming airstream from a temperature of over 1,000 C to -150 C in less than a hundredth of a second without the engine frosting up.

It means Skylon will be able to fly at five times the speed of sound to reach low Earth orbit.