17 Jul 2012
SKYLON, a concept space-plane from Reaction Engines Ltd., is a reusable single stage-to-orbit launch vehicle that uses revolutionary new engine technology.

Astrium Space Transportation and OHB AG will lead the design of a new heavy-lift vehicle for the European Space Agency (ESA).  This following a bidding war that included a third bidder, Reaction Engines Ltd. of Britain according to ESA director General Jean-Jacques Dordain.  This British bidder is a company that for more than 10 years has been designing a space plane called Skylon using a radical new single-stage engine design.

Reaction Engines wasn't selected for for the ESA new European Launch Service but was sufficiently impressed with the proposal and has asked the ESA directorate Estec in the Netherlands to work with the company starting this month.

ESA is seeking a rocket design that can place satellites in orbit that weigh between 6,600 and 14,300 pounds (3,000 and 6,500 kg) into geostationary transfer orbits, the area of most telecommunications satellites.

The estimates on what this would cost to develop a vehicle of this nature range between 3 and 6 billion euros over 10 years or more.  This has European governments debating whether to upgrade the current Ariane 5 rocket or to start developing a new one.

Skylon Spacecraft and the High Cost

Reaction Engines' Skylon rocket would cost even more, around 10 billion euros over 10-12 years according to Mark Hempsell the company's director of future programs.  The key component that has been the center of the companies efforts for years is SABRE or the Synthetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine.  The Skylon spacecraft takes off and lands horizontally on its own undercarriage.  It is capable of carrying up to 16.5 tons of payload to low-Earth orbit and could even deliver cargo, supplies and crew to the International Space Station (ISS), which would extend ISS's life span.

With a recoverable upper stage, SKYLON could deliver communication satellites to geosynchronous orbit and retrieve the upper stage and reuse it for further missions.

SABRE also takes on the role of jet engine for suborbital flights and a rocket engine for placing satellites into orbit.  Testing is underway on the engines precooler, which must transform air entering the engine at 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit (1000 Celsius) to minus 238 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 150 Celsius) in one-hundredth of a second.

ESA has sent teams to monitor the development.  A third series of demonstrations of the precooler is set for August.

Skylon  Space Construction and Hotel

Skylon could be used in conjunction with an Orbital Base Station (OBS) allowing modular structures to be built in low-Earth orbit, providing living quarters for the crew, protection from orbital debris and internal lighting and propellant storage.  This OBS facility would enable large ships for the exploration of the moon and Mars to be built.

In addition through the use of inflatable modules, an orbiting hotel could be created that could house up to 20 guests through the use of the Skylon space plane.

The Tech-Stew Take Home

Reaction Engines still has much testing to get the concept vehicle off the ground.  With proper backing they could become a viable heavy-lift alternative to existing space craft and a particularly interesting one with their single-stage air breathing engine design.  If their engine design works this technology will revolutionize the space industry leading to other spin-offs and space plane designs.  Either way, actual working test flights are probably still years away, but in the meantime they are one to watch for developments.

Source:  Space.com, bbc.co.uk

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