28 April 2012

Skylon Development Continues Apace

Aspiring space plane manufacturer Skylon is beginning test with their key heat exchanger technology:
UK engineers have begun critical tests on a new engine technology designed to lift a spaceplane into orbit.


Its major innovation is the Sabre engine, which can breathe air like a jet at lower speeds but switch to a rocket mode in the high atmosphere.

Reaction Engines Limited (REL) believes the test campaign will prove the readiness of Sabre's key elements.

This being so, the firm would then approach investors to raise the £250m needed to take the project into the final design phase.


Sabre is part jet engine, part rocket engine. It burns hydrogen and oxygen to provide thrust - but in the lower atmosphere this oxygen is taken from the atmosphere.

The approach should save weight and allow Skylon to go straight to orbit without the need for the multiple propellant stages seen in today's throw-away rockets.


But it is a challenging prospect. At high speeds, the Sabre engines must cope with 1,000-degree gases entering their intakes. These need to be cooled prior to being compressed and burnt with the hydrogen.

Reaction Engines' breakthrough is a module containing arrays of extremely fine piping that can extract the heat and plunge the intake gases to minus 140C in just 1/100th of a second.

Ordinarily, the moisture in the air would be expected to freeze out rapidly, covering the pre-cooler's pipes in a blanket of frost and compromising their operation.

But the REL team has also devised a means to stop this happening, permitting Sabre to run in jet mode for as long as is needed before making the transition to a booster rocket.
The technology, first mooted in the early 1980s, is using the cryogenic hydrogen to extract oxygen from the air up to about 30,000m, and then convert to onboard oxygen for the rest of the journey.

The heat exchanger is a full size flight representative component so this is significant, but I really don't see this becoming an actual aircraft without a major government backing.

Some background on Skylon here.


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