Skylon

The British Interplanetary Society — the world’s first space exploration advocacy group founded in 1933 — hosted Mark Hempsell of British aerospace company Reaction Engines to discuss the Skylon space plane project Wednesday night and your intrepid ESTH Officer was there.

 

A drawing of the Skylon.
A drawing of the Skylon.

The Skylon is a reusable, single-stage space plane. In layman’s terms, a plane that can leave the atmosphere powered by engines that are actually part of the plane, instead of the multi-stage rockets we’re familiar with, which are jettisoned by a satellite, capsule, or shuttle in stages. It’s an exciting prospect, because it brings us closer to routine space travel.

While the Skylon spaceship (I know it’s technically a space plane, but spaceship sounds better) looks great and fires the imagination, it’s the engine attached to it that is generating attention at the highest levels of the British government.   Last year, UK Science Minster David Willetts announced a £60 million investment in the SABRE (Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine), which Reaction Engines is building to power the Skylon someday. The European Space Agency has also blessed the project, agreeing that the engine has the potential to work as its designers describe. And, those descriptions are really something, suggestion disruption to space and civil air travel, as well. SABRE cools air from 1000 degrees Celsius to -154 degrees Celsius in 1/100th of a second and mixes that air with liquid hydrogen in a process that could get an airplane or spaceship to Mach 5 PDQ. That’s New York to London in under an hour, about the same time as it takes me to get from my flat in Putney to the Embassy. The SABRE can then close its intakes and turn into a more traditional rocket, powered by on-board supplies of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. That is how the SABRE gets into space. Whoosh.

A drawing of the SABRE (Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine).
A drawing of the SABRE (Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine).

The UK Civil Aviation Authority is working a certification process for commercial space travel, a somewhat different approach from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s licensing procedure. We’ll leave that policy wonkery for another day. In the meantime, it’s important to remember that

Reaction Engines isn’t the only company working to change space travel. Back home, Boeing’s X-51A has already set records for hypersonic travel using scramjet technology. Of course, SpaceX in California owns plenty of firsts in commercial space travel.

Still, the story of “The Three Rocketeers” — you can watch the BBC documentary of the same name below — behind Reaction Engines is a pretty classic underdog story and it’s hard not to root for them. It’s also a reminder that innovation in science and technology is a shared, trans-Atlantic value. Here’s to the next discoveries, in the United States and the United Kingdom, and their potential to carry us further and faster into space than ever before — perhaps even to Mars.

– Aaron