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Skylon: Revolutionary space engine system developed by UK company

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 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.

“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.

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.

Reaction Engines believes Sabre is the only engine of its kind in development and the company now needs to raise about 250 million pounds ($400 million) to fund the next three-year development phase in which it plans to build a small-scale version of the complete engine.

Chief executive Tim Hayter believes the company could have an operational engine ready for sale within 10 years if it can raise the development funding.

The company reckons the engine technology could win a healthy chunk of four key markets together worth $112 billion (69 billion pounds) a year, including space access, hypersonic air travel, and modified jet engines that use the heat exchanger to save fuel.

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 percent – or $10 (6.25 pounds)-20 billion – off airline fuel bills. That would be significant in an industry where incremental efficiency gains of one percent or so, from improvements in wing design for instance, are big news.

( via uk.reuters.com)