The UK government has invested in the development of a new engine that could be used to fire space planes into orbit. In partnership with British Aerospace Engineering (BAE), the UK is investing £60 million into Reaction Engines’ Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engines (SABRE engine). The most compelling application of the technology would be the ‘Skylon’, a space plane that could fly anywhere in the world in four hours. But while this would help to kick-start a resurgence in the UK’s space industry, investing in such experimental technology could place British taxpayer’s money at risk.
As the BBC points out, twenty-first century space travel has so far been a narrative defined by the desires of eccentric billionaires – and competition within this newly-commercialised sector is strong. Ex-PayPal CEO Elon Musk’s SpaceX company launches satellites and plays a crucial role in the delivery of supplies to the ISS. Richard Branson’s Galactic arm of the Virgin empire plans to use as ‘spaceplanes’ to take ticket-holders into zero-gravity. Not to be left out, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also has funded a project that aims to make rockets reusable.
But amongst all this, the SABRE engine still stands out. From a technological perspective, the SABRE’s core design idea is unique. The engine rapidly chills hot air from 1000°C to -140°C in a hundredth of a second. Then hydrogen is injected, compressed, and combusted. It is part-jet engine, part-rocket. The applications for the technology also have great implications for air travel. If anyone is going to usurp the heritage of Concorde, it may as well be the British government. The theoretical Skylon plane built upon the SABRE platform would be able to fly to Sydney in just four hours. This is made possible utilising the design’s exciting-sounding ‘orbit mode’ and a top speed of five times the speed of sound.
But it’s all too easy to get carried away with what the technology promises, and to forget there are many things that will still need deep consideration and testing.For example, the first tests of the SABRE system are not planned for another decade, and these tests will be exclusively earthside for now. Putting real people next to an engine involving rapidly cooling air and then instantly injecting and burning rocket fuel will mean that the tightest tolerances will need to be enforced.The teams will also need to make sure they have a way to house an engine of that power – and there’ll even need to consider how to ensure ordinary people can become astronauts.
The benefits will, however, be greatly worth the effort. Travel that fast could speed up human productivity immensely; launching satellites will cost us considerably less and air travel will be revolutionised. Often funding space programs can be seen as throwing money into the void, but there could be tangible return on investment were the engine to reach industrial ubiquity. Backing of over £80 million gives a good idea of confidence in the project.Space travel in general has its proponents, with Professor Stephen Hawking stating that it will serve as “life insurance” for mankind, and the distinguished professor has given more than one interview to promote investment in space travel to prevent humans from “stultifying and dying out”.
This technology is unlikely to take us to Mars (or fetch that poor bloke from the John Lewis advert), but these developments push us in the right direction. What now remains to be seen is where this technology will go.
Image: Jeff Foust