Rocket Science

by Nicholas Mee on October 1, 2012

Rocket Science

The traditional route into space

Reaching Earth orbit is an expensive business. The problem is that it takes a lot of rocket fuel to launch a payload, but the fuel adds considerably to the weight of the rocket, which means that even more fuel is required to launch the fuel, which again adds to the weight and so on. This means that, unfortunately, flying a completely reusable single stage rocket into orbit isn’t quite possible. The Earth is about 10% too big for this to be feasible. The result is that the cost of putting material into orbit is eye-watering. The cost of taking the equivalent of just a gallon of water to the International Space Station aboard the Space Shuttle was around $100,000.

An Orbital Revolution

However, the space industry may be on the verge of a revolution. Visionary British engineer Alan Bond has been working for many years to develop a new type of engine that can circumvent the fundamental problem faced by all rockets – the need to carry all their own fuel. In 1989 Alan Bond set up Reaction Engines Ltd with two rocket engineer colleagues Richard Varvill and John Scott-Scott.

The Sabre-toothed Engine

Over the last two decades the company has developed the SABRE engine, which is a combined air-breathing engine and rocket. The engine burns hydrogen fuel, but while travelling through the atmosphere the engine draws oxygen from the air like a jet engine. In this mode of operation the engine is capable of propelling a craft to five times the speed of sound – Mach 5, which is well over twice as fast as Concorde. When the edge of the atmosphere is reached the SABRE engine would switch to rocket mode and onboard supplies of liquid oxygen would be used to burn the hydrogen fuel.

The SABRE engine has just completed extensive testing and its viability has been proved. To paraphrase Alan Bond, the research stage has now been completed and Reaction Engines is now in the development phase of the project. The following link will take you to a video of Alan Bond describing the engine at the Farnborough Air Show:

The First Spaceplane

The plan is to build a spaceplane called Skylon that would be about the size of a Boeing 777 and would operate like a commercial aircraft providing reliable and cost-effective access to space. It would also be possible to build a non-orbital vehicle that could reach any point on Earth within four hours offering British tourists the chance of a day-trip toAustralia.

Skylon – The future of space travel.

Reaction Engines have made the following animation to show how Skylon would operate. It is well worth a look.

The UK Space Agency believes that there are no significant technical barriers to the successful development of the SKYLON Spaceplane.


More Information

For anyone who would like more details, the following video shows Alan Bond giving an hour-long lecture about the engine and how it will be used. This definitely is rocket science, but it is very watchable:

Reaction Engines


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