A small British company with a dream of building a re-usable space plane has won an important endorsement from the European Space Agency (ESA) after completing key tests on its novel engine technology.
Reaction Engines Ltd. believes its novel Sabre engine, which would operate like a jet engine in the atmosphere and a rocket in space, could displace rockets for space access and transform air travel by bringing any destination on earth to no more than four hours away.
That ambition was given a boost on Wednesday by ESA, which has acted as an independent auditor on the Sabre test program.
"ESA are satisfied that the tests demonstrate the technology required for the Sabre engine development," the agency's head of propulsion engineering Mark Ford told a news conference.
"One of the major obstacles to a re-usable vehicle has been removed," he said. "The gateway is now open to move beyond the jet age."
The space plane, dubbed Skylon, only exists on paper. What the company has right now is a remarkable heat exchanger that is able to cool air sucked into the engine at high speed from 1,000 C to minus-150 C in one-hundredth of a second.
This core piece of technology solves one of the constraints that limit jet engines to a top speed of about 2.5 times the speed of sound, which Reaction Engines believes it could double.
With the Sabre engine in jet mode, the air has to be compressed before being injected into the engine's combustion chambers. Without pre-cooling, the heat generated by compression would make the air hot enough to melt the engine.
The challenge for the engineers was to find a way to cool the air quickly without frost forming on the heat exchanger, which would clog it up and stop it working.
Using a nest of fine pipes that resemble a large wire coil, the engineers have managed to get round this fatal problem that would normally follow from such rapid cooling of the moisture in atmospheric air.
They are tight-lipped on exactly how they managed to do it.
"We are not going to tell you how this works," said the company's chief designer Richard Varvill, who started his career at the military engine division of Rolls-Royce. "It is our most closely guarded secret."
The company has deliberately avoided filing patents on its heat exchanger technology to avoid details of how it works – particularly the method for preventing the build-up of frost – becoming public.
The Sabre engine could take a plane to five times the speed of sound and an altitude of 25 kilometres, about 20 per cent of the speed and altitude needed to reach orbit. For space access, the engines would then switch to rocket mode to do the remaining 80 per cent.
Reaction Engines believes Sabre is the only engine of its kind in development and the company now needs to raise about £250-million ($400-million U.S.) to fund the next three-year development phase in which it plans to build a small-scale version of the complete engine.
Scramjets on test vehicles like the U.S. Air Force Waverider, also use atmospheric air to create thrust but they have to be accelerated to their operating speed by normal jet engines or rockets before they kick in. The Sabre engine can operate from a standing start.
Sabre produces thrust by burning hydrogen and oxygen but inside the atmosphere it would take that oxygen from the air, reducing the amount it would have to carry in fuel tanks for rocket mode, cutting weight and allowing Skylon to go into orbit in one stage.
If the developers are successful, Sabre would be the first engine in history to send a vehicle into space without using disposable, multi-stage rockets.
Skylon is years away, but in the meantime the technology is attracting interest from the global aerospace industry and governments because it effectively doubles the technical limits of current jet engines and could cut the cost of space access.
The heat exchanger technology could also be incorporated into a new jet engine design that could cut 5 to 10 per cent off airline fuel bills.
That would be significant in an industry where incremental efficiency gains of 1 per cent or so, from improvements in wing design for instance, are big news.