The European Space Agency (ESA) has inked a deal with British firm Reaction Engines Ltd to work on a paradigm-punishing new type of spacecraft engine. The tech could lead to fully reusable runway-launched space shuttles "within ten years".
According to Alan Bond, MD of Reaction Engines:
“Traditional throw-away rockets costing more than a $100 million per launch are a drag on the growth of this market. The Holy Grail to transform the economics of getting into space is to use a truly reusable spaceplane capable of taking off from an airport and climbing directly into space, delivering its satellite payload and automatically returning safely to Earth.
“We have an inside track on realising this goal. SKYLON could reduce the cost of getting into space by a factor of ten.”
Many Reg readers will be familiar with Reaction Engines and its longstanding plans for proper spaceplanes. The ideas being funded by the ESA centre around the firm's nifty "Skylon" design. Here's a concept vid:
Skylon is in essence a 270-foot-long unmanned, winged liquid-hydrogen tank with a payload bay and oxygen tanks at the middle. At each wingtip it has a unique "Sabre" engine - the keys to the whole plan.
From takeoff up to Mach 5, the Skylon's Sabres operate by burning liquid hydrogen fuel with air from their intakes. They aren't ram or scram jets, however: the incoming air is compressed and almost instantly chilled to the point where it is about to liquefy, using a turbocompressor and tremendously powerful freezer kit running on a closed liquid-helium loop. Then the air is fed into the combustion chamber and burned. The heat arising from the super air chilling process is dumped into the liquid hydrogen fuel prior to burning it.
As the Skylon accelerates through Mach 5.5, it will have climbed to such heights that the air is no longer worth scooping. The intakes are shut off and liquid oxygen from the ship's tanks used instead, as the Sabres become relatively normal liquid fuelled rocket engines.
Once in orbit, the Skylon carries out its mission. It has an auxiliary orbital-manoeuvring system which also runs on liquid hydrogen and oxygen, though in special tanks able to hold their contents safely for longer. Reaction Engines says that the Skylon could carry 12 tonnes to an orbit 300km up, good for many satellite applications: alternatively it could deliver 10.5 tonnes to 460km (these figures are for equatorial orbits).