back to article European Space Agency clears SABRE orbital engines

A British-built rocket/jet engine designed to enable Mach 6 flight and orbital capability has passed a key milestone, now that the European Space Agency has cleared the revolutionary cooler that fuels it. The Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE) extracts the oxygen it needs to fly from the air itself while in jet …

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  1. Martin Budden
    Go

    Newquay as a spaceport?

    The runway there is already very long, with room to extend if needed.

    It's right on the coast so the noise is quickly over the sea instead of many miles of inland towns.

    The local planning authority is (allegedly) easy to bribe.

    1. Vulch
      Boffin

      Re: Newquay as a spaceport?

      Faces the wrong way unfortunately. Better off using one of the RAF bases in Lincolnshire so they can launch to the east and do the acceleration run over the North Sea before switching to rocket as they cross the Danish coast.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: over the North Sea before switching to rocket as they cross the Danish coast.

        I'm sure the Russians wont mind that at all.... :-)

      2. SkippyBing

        Re: Newquay as a spaceport?

        The advantage of Newquay is that it's the second longest runway in the country, I'm fairly sure any of the available ones in Lincolnshire would need extending. I'd guess a small change of course wouldn't be that much of a problem, unless you subscribe to the Edwina Curry school of airport planning that says we don't fly to China because Heathrow is on the wrong side of London.

        Of course Ascension Island would probably be a better bet as it's got even less people to annoy and is that much nearer the equator.

        The longest runway in the UK? That'll be Machrihanish, but that really is the arse end of nowhere.

        1. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

          Machrihanish the arse end of nowhere.

          Machrihanish sounds perfect. We need a multinational civil engineering project to join Scotland to the UK once more. And they have all the oil. The sooner we use it all up the better.

          This made me feel old and also that though I have had 63 years, a lot of it was wasted waiting for my dreams to grow up with me:

          > "The SABRE engine has the potential to revolutionise our lives in the 21st century

          > in the way the jet engine did in the 20th Century. "

          It summed up just how short a century is and how much can change in 100 years since Wilbur and Orville gave Frank ideas.

          And to think we could have had jet powered Hurricanes in 1936 if only the British Government had been able to come up with a fiver. Hell they could have had jet powered, 25mm calibre firing Mosquitoes in time for the Battle of Britain if it hadn't been for the Ministry of Defence.

          1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
            Holmes

            Re: Machrihanish the arse end of nowhere.

            "if only the British Government had been able to come up with a fiver."

            Well it was renew the patent or pay the gas bill. GE, P&W, Bell Aircraft are all jolly glad Frank chose the sensible course.

            Of course in 1936

            "But Wing Cmdr be reasonable. Our finest scientific minds assure me that you'd need so much cast iron your design would be too heavy."

            Bill Gunston describes the antics around UK aircraft and jet engine quite well.

    2. annodomini2
      Boffin

      Re: Newquay as a spaceport?

      The runway also needs to be reinforced, due to the relatively small landing gear, an A380 can have a take off weight of 573t, but has many more wheels than Skylon.

      1. The First Dave
        Boffin

        Re: Newquay as a spaceport?

        Just a question - but does take-off weight matter as much as landing-weight? Surely there is very little drag on take-off, compared to the "instantaneous" radial acceleration of the wheels on landing?

        As for Macrahanish - the location might be quite an advantage.

        1. annodomini2
          Boffin

          Re: Newquay as a spaceport?

          There is more shock load on landing, but take-off weight is still important as the vehicle is always heavier and the pressure the vehicle puts on the surface could cause it to break up if overloaded.

          Skylon would use a fairly small undercarriage compared to a conventional airliner, but this is due to the big difference between take-off and landing weights as most of the take-off weight is fuel.

    3. Swoop
      Go

      Re: Newquay as a spaceport?

      As a Kentish lad, can I suggest Boris Island? If Mr Johnson's backers can provide the £40 billion (or whatever the current estimate is) for an airport in the Thames Estuary I'm sure they could be persuaded to spend a little more on the required upgrade for Skylon. And they might even bung a bit of cash at the Skylon project itself.

      Oh, and it would get the naysayers even more upset, which would be a bonus.

      1. Christoph
        Mushroom

        Re: Newquay as a spaceport?

        Doesn't matter what Boris or anyone else has to say about putting an airport there.

        Before they even begin to make plans, they've first got to have a word with Richard Montgomery.

      2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
        Coat

        Re: Newquay as a spaceport?

        "As a Kentish lad, can I suggest Boris Island?"

        You wouldn't want the Skylon hangar to be concealed inside a mountain would you?

        The name brought back memories.

        Time to be gone.

    4. Andrew Newstead

      Re: Newquay as a spaceport?

      I don't anywhere in the UK would be suitable for a launch site, we're too far North to be practical. You could certainly build a runway for transit to a more suitable launch site and as the Skylon vehicle would not have to be fully fuelled for a sub-orbital hop (or even a Concorde like flight) to that site the runway would not have to be built as hard as the orbital launch site.

      It has been said before, and I agree, the best launch site for a Skylon would be Ascension Island. Virtually on the equator so the perfect orbital launch site and still a British territory. There is already a military airbase there, run by the RAF for large aircraft. It doesn't take much imagination to see this being upgraded to handle Skylon orbital launches and it's main runway does run roughly East-West. NASA and the ESA both have a launch tracking presence on the Island so there is an infrastructure in place that can be accessed to prepare Skylon launch facilities. All in all a pretty good choice.

      So, Ascension Island, Start investing in property there, it could be the gateway to orbit!

      1. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

        Ascent by name but not by nature.

        I think you have missed the point of it being a JET engine and where passengers on jets tend to go and which routs are best for that and why.

  2. Kugutsu
    Flame

    Oxygen is not fuel

    "...cleared the revolutionary cooler that fuels it"

    The fuel is hydrogen, the air provides oxygen, which is the oxidiser needed to burn the fuel. If fuel could be extracted from the air on the go, transport would look very different, and probably cheaper (although on the other hand, the atmosphere would fireball at the first sign of a spark...).

  3. Ossi

    Anyone else get that sinking feeling that within five years this whole project will quietly disappear?

    1. Kharkov
      Angel

      Skylon is here to stay

      'Going to quietly disappear?'

      Nope! There are now no major obstacles between here & the first production Skylon. And Newquay? Skylon needs 5.5Km of runway to get airborne safely and it'll be a noisy beast so no, not anywhere near people.

      1. S4qFBxkFFg
        Unhappy

        Re: Skylon is here to stay

        Oh dear.

        I'm pretty sure there isn't a runway nearly that long in Britain so new build or an extension would be the only options (at least if it ends up here).

        Prestwick might be an idea - get rid of Troon golf course and there'd probably be enough space. (An extension was at least planned years ago - in the 30s I think.)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      not as long as the guy in charge is around! he has made this happen with plenty of obstacles, and I am sure he will get it flying! we just need a UK entrepreneur who wants to go to space to stump up some cash!

  4. SW
    Mushroom

    British engine, so why

    is the example flight to Sydney originating from BRUSSELS - unless the first unproven test flight is stuffed with a few nameless Brussels bureaucrats.

    <--- Visual result of SABRE ingesting politicos.

    1. Shrimpling

      Re: British engine, so why

      I thought the example is to extract funding from the ESA... Its not like they would care how long it takes from London

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Boffin

      Re: British engine, so why

      Because Brussels (or rather the EU) funded the M5 LAPCAT airliner project.

      If the UK put up the money it would probably be shown taking off from thiefrow.

  5. Kharkov
    Headmaster

    Nitrogen Cooling?

    Bit of a nitpick here but on a 2nd reading, I spy mention of nitrogen cooling.

    The actual SABRE engine's precooler - and both Skylon AND its SABRE engine are long overdue for an El Reg article - is actually helium cooled.

    No nitrogen please, we Brits only use upper-class noble gases...

    1. Vulch
      Boffin

      Re: Nitrogen Cooling?

      Nit picking your nitpick. The demo cooler is also using helium, but that's just a closed loop heat transfer system. The demo system is using a tank of nitrogen to keep the helium cold, flight versions will be using the flow of hydrogen fuel instead.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Sounds risky

    That is a lot of small tubing subject to vibration or thermal cracking risks...

    1. Jared Hunt
      Holmes

      Re: Sounds risky

      You don't say? ;) The engineering problems are substantial but these tests have shown that they may not be insurmountable. If it was going to be straightforward they'd already be flying by now.

  7. MrXavia

    Come on UK Gov, stump up the cash! You owe Alan Bond and the public for cancelling HOTOL!

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Boffin

      @MrXavia

      "Come on UK Gov, stump up the cash! You owe Alan Bond and the public for cancelling HOTOL!"

      You'll find REL would prefer they did not stump up the money.

      It's complicated. Many of the senior staff lived through Concorde. They know that large scale govt investment brings endless bureaucracy and funding instability (see NASA RE SLS, Orion/SM etc).

      They also acknowledge that HOTOL "would not have worked" (Direct quote from Alan Bond). However in understanding why they got to Skylon. See "The 3 Rocketeers" film for more.

      IIRC REL estimate 15% of their budget has been from various govts. The rest has been (very) private funding. Govt endorsement yes, govt only (or govt majority) funding no.

  8. Matthew 3

    Name change?

    Much as I like the Skylon name I'd love to see a new generation pointing up and saying 'Look! Concorde!'

    1. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

      Eh hoh eh hoh eh ho!

      Avez vooz thoughte zate ze Concorde was doomed the moment we got the French on board?

      It was bad enough it remained a government project all its life, it died still wearing valves in the digital age. Good grief. In effing France!

      How many versions of jumbo jets got produced in its lifetime?

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
        Boffin

        Re: Eh hoh eh hoh eh ho!

        "Avez vooz thoughte zate ze Concorde was doomed the moment we got the French on board?"

        Actually the UK govt wanted to cancel Concord (or Concorde depending where and when you were talking).

        At times it was only the clause that required both governments to cancel it that kept the programme running.

        However the French did "contribute" the need to build 3 generations of prototypes before they accepted that a) Less than 100 seats was a complete non-starter b) You needed at least London/New York range.

        Presumably that lesson will not be forgotten the next time round. BTW REL's M5 airliner proposal is on their site under LAPCAT.

        Had they got to a 17th Concorde there were plans to up the range to Frankfurt/New York, without afterburner (people forget Concorde did routine "super cruise" for decades while the US Military tried to get it to work).

    2. Pookietoo

      Re: pointing up and saying 'Look! Concorde!'

      Used to hear it regularly when I lived in Cornwall, only ever saw it at Filton.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Reduce Security Risks In The Cloud"

    ... is a very appropriate advert to run under this story.

  10. annodomini2
    Pint

    Money, Money, Money...

    The major benefit of this is that the cooler tech is not limited to just Space launchers.

    Some have mentioned Mach 5 Airliners.

    Which means Mach 5 military aircraft won't be far behind. Bae Systems will probably be looking at this for Mach 5 cruise missiles. Possibly UAV's.

    Would love to see ESA throw some of their Ariane 6 cash towards SABRE, Skylon would perfectly fit their needs for the Ariane 6.

    RR may want to get back into the rocket engine business, but I doubt it unless UK gov/ESA fronts the cash. Unfortunately Reaction Engines may need the resources of someone like RR to get this to the next stage, so this could be the projects major hurdle, rather than the cash and with RR involved £250m may not be enough.

    This is the only plausible fully reusable SSTO under development, it's the next step in space access let's not let it die people.

    Beer 'cos they bloody deserve it!

    1. David 164

      Re: Money, Money, Money...

      RR may not be interested in build a whole new rocket engines but that may be interested in licensing the pre cooler technology for its jet engines business.

    2. graeme leggett

      Re: Money, Money, Money...

      Didn't RR only have one rocket engine that got used? The Z2 from Blue Streak/ Europa

      Most rocket development in the UK was under Bristol (via Bristol Aerojet) and Armstrong-Siddeley.

    3. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      Re: Money, Money, Money...

      "The major benefit of this is that the cooler tech is not limited to just Space launchers."

      No the major benefit of this is it brings an HTOL SSTO vehicle a good deal nearer to being flight tested. That's their core business.

      REL rate hypersonic cruise as tougher than launch. People have described cruise as like continuous re entry. It's a very tough environment. Whereas most REL tests have been run for about 10mins which REL say covers the whole of the launch cycle. LAPCAT cruise is measured in hours

      REL know they need bigger partners and building an "industrial consortium" to do Skylon and the bulk of SABRE (IE all the stuff downstream of the pre cooler) is a key task.

  11. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

    This is more that a single space-plane...

    ... The engine design is an enabling technology not that dissimilar to the original Jet engine (which the Brits also had a hand in).

    - If you want to fly fast you need thin air. You can't do it down low. Too much heat from air friction.

    - But if you want to fly where there's little or no air, you're going to have to bring your oxidiser with you. Which doubles the fuel weight

    - Oh, and if you want to fly fast you need to carry a lot of fuel anyway.

    This is why the Yanks were trying to build a hypersonic ramjet - it might go fast in thin air and still gulp enough air down to not have to carry oxidiser. But it doesn't look as if it'll be very practical, since it needs rocket launching.

    A SABRE engine in a military vehicle could take off in jet mode from the good ol' US homeland, breathing air, then climb to a near vacuum and go hypersonic in rocket mode. Then, when it got to the target area it would descend, switch to jet, manoeveure and bomb the target. It would then return the way it had come.

    I imagine that the US military are drooling as the possibilities become apparent....

    1. annodomini2

      Re: This is more that a single space-plane...

      SABRE engine is hypersonic in jet mode (Mach 5+), see Scimitar the airbreathing only version engine using the precooler tech for Hypersonic passenger jet concept called LAPCAT.

    2. annodomini2

      Re: This is more that a single space-plane...

      Besides, the US probably have a hypersonic Pulse Detonation Engine for this purpose anyway.

      1. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

        Re: This is more that a single space-plane...

        ..that will perform well in low-speed maneuvers near the target, then...

  12. Dave Bell

    Air-breathing advantage

    Skylon is going to be an aeroplane that can go into space. I don't know what constraints there are on the flight profile, but I expect a relatively low-speed climb to high altitude and then a turn onto the "launch" heading for the run to Mach 5 and the extreme switch-over altitude.

    If it's EU-backed, a runway in Spain might be the best choice, with the supersonic flight over the Mediterranean.

    There is always going to be a penalty for a launch from Northern Europe and if EU funding is going to annoy David Cameron, I could care less..

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Air-breathing advantage

      Pedant. I think you mean that you couldn't care less

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      Re: Air-breathing advantage

      " I don't know what constraints there are on the flight profile, but I expect a relatively low-speed climb to high altitude and then a turn onto the "launch" heading for the run to Mach 5 and the extreme switch-over altitude."

      The takeoff speed is roughly M0.5.

      You might like to revise your idea of the flight profile.

  13. Christoph
    Boffin

    Not just the cooling

    Cooling the air down wasn't that much of a challenge, the really neat trick (which as far as I know hasn't been revealed) is that the thing didn't freeze up into a solid mass of ice as the water in the air froze.

    Now that we know that the trick works we can go ahead with building the thing.

    And I hope they get the name of the first flight model right. I once saw an official drawing of HOTOL, and the artist had added the craft's name to it. Anastasia.

    1. graeme leggett

      Re: Not just the cooling

      Anastasia sounds good, though the Pilot of the Future will probably be at a deskstation and not in the pointy end of Skylon.

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Boffin

      Re: Not just the cooling

      "Cooling the air down wasn't that much of a challenge,"

      That's a bit of an understatement.

      "the really neat trick (which as far as I know hasn't been revealed) is that the thing didn't freeze up into a solid mass of ice as the water in the air froze."

      Correct . "Frost control" (and liquifying air, rather than just making it very cold) sank the 1950s LACE concepts.

      They've given a few hints but I suspect their model on this will be the Whitehead torpedo whose "Special Sauce" (c Lewis Page) was its (all mechanical) attitude sensing control system which was held as a "trade secret" and users were trained through the 19century equivalent of NDA's.

  14. Fogcat
    Boffin

    How about kickstarter?.... Then I could chip in

    1. annodomini2
      Boffin

      See here:

      http://www.theengineer.co.uk/sectors/aerospace/in-depth/skylon-and-sabre-your-questions-answered/1014164.article

      Answer to question 8

  15. Anonymous Coward
    FAIL

    Who stole the video?

    I followed this <a href="http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/07/22/skylon_engine_tests_farnborough/">link</a>, but alas, no video.

  16. cestmoi

    I hope Reaction Engines is secure against industrial espionage!

    I hope the UK and European authorities are providing Reaction Engines with the required level of security against industrial and defence espionage.

    You could bet that there a number private and government / state actors (especially from non-democratic states, you know the usual suspects) that must be keen to get their hands on this technology without paying for the Intellectual Property!

    At a time when the UK and European economies are facing growth problems, it would be foolish not to protect such assets and keep the UK and Europe competitive in world market.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Happy

      Re: I hope Reaction Engines is secure against industrial espionage!

      "I hope the UK and European authorities are providing Reaction Engines with the required level of security against industrial and defence espionage."

      Well in an ideal world the "Greatest advance since the jet engine" should probably rate a high end private security firm staffed by hyper alert ex SF types, attack dogs and a SoA alarm system guarding a TEMPEST shielded segregated computer network.

      But I think they'll probably be sticking with the PC's they got on a block buy at PC World and the ex PC partnered with Lucky the faithful (three legged) Labrador for dog patrol on the perimeter.

      All joking aside I also hope they will have put some money into both their physical and IT security.

      That said I wonder if people realize how difficult real industrial espionage is.

      Keep in mind the Soviet union did this with Concorde. Despite detailed access to the plans (and the whole resources of the KGB to bulglarise, bribe and blackmail) and the entire aeronautical establishment on call they still failed to realize the critical importance of the wings shape in delivering its handling and fuel efficiency, especially at low speed.

  17. Kharkov
    Angel

    Will REL go European?

    Kudos to REL! Yes, I've said that before but they deserve it so I'll say it again.

    It's important to note that this is revolutionary. As in, it might very well change the way that people do things. i.e., revolutionary.

    Case in Point. ESA is currently trying to decide whether or not to upgrade their Ariane 5 or go ahead with Ariane 6. In both cases, the Ariane rocket provides jobs for large numbers of people so that a fairly small capital-intensive industry (satellites etc) can operate, and employ a fairly small number of people.

    Will ESA man up, back Skylon and change to a model that has fairly small numbers of jobs actually building Skylons/SABREs etc so that the cost of getting into orbit becomes so low that, later, you get a large number of people employed A: in space, B: making things that go into space, and C: using things in space?

    Or will it be backing a very expensive rocket building the 21st Century equivilant to the red flag factory so that there'd be enough red flags for people to carry in front of cars?

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      Re: Will REL go European?

      "It's important to note that this is revolutionary. As in, it might very well change the way that people do things. i.e., revolutionary."

      True. And therefor risky in a way that makes eurocrats very nervous.

      Note Skylon targets the same core customers (communications satellite operators) as Ariane, but it's cost model is completely different. I'm not quite sure how the Ariane designs are formerly handed over to Arianespace but that would not happen in REL's case. They would just sell them a Skylon (or 2) and up to Ariansepace to find something for them to do.

      "Will ESA man up, back Skylon and change to a model that has fairly small numbers of jobs actually building Skylons/SABREs etc s"

      I'm not sure about the jobs ratio. skylon is more like an aircraft. People use the analogy of an Airbus 380 in size and they take quite a lot of people to mfg and assemble, although structurally Skylon should be simpler (fewish unique parts, but lots of them.

      Note that REL engaged with ESA on this. The study contract has already been let but I think it was more for REL to get themselves in front of the key ESA staff and get them on their radar.

      REL want ESA's support but are very weary of any govt having a substantial investment in them. It's the Concorde thing.

      1. annodomini2

        Re: Will REL go European?

        The precept of Ariane 6 is cost down so they can compete with SpaceX in the commercial market.

        Given EADS own Astrium, who make the Ariane series and Airbus.

        I would certainly think they'd have their attention and from an idealist perspective, Skylon would seem to fit the bill perfectly.

        However I think you hit the nail on the head, risk, if this was the US you'd probably have several projects springing up around this, but the financial situation in Europe will be making bureaucrats cautious.

        Spend X get a working rocket, if expensive to run.

        Spend Y (maybe < X, maybe > X), possibly get a working rocket that is cheaper to operate.

        I would love to see something like Skylon built, but it's either going to be a money issue or a political one or both.

        1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
          Meh

          Re: Will REL go European?

          "I would love to see something like Skylon built, but it's either going to be a money issue or a political one or both."

          REL know this. As you track through their history you notice they have been very good at forming partnerships and alliances with other organisations (companies and higher education) to leverage their limited resources to get progress.

          REL are quite blunt in that they want to see an "industrial consortium" formed to mfg Skylon and most of SABRE, except the pre-cooler (I'm guessing they'd also like to do most of the other heat exchangers in the design, of which there are several).

          I think EADS Astrium would be a key player. Senior REL staff have experience of the parts of the company that dealt with Airbus.

          I'd hope they steer clear of BAe. It's basically a government con-tractor and dumped it's commercial parts onto EADS Astrium at the first opportunity.

          A model could be the way the Tornado was built through formation of "Panavia" and its engines through "TurboUnion." The Channel Tunnel might also be a candidate for the structure (obviously not a perfect one).

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