The UK spaceplane aiming to go to a new level
If there is one British space project that has the capacity to inspire at the moment then surely it is Skylon.
This is the spaceplane concept [4.28Mb PDF] that would take off from a conventional aircraft runway, carry over 12 tonnes to orbit and then return to land on the same runway.
It promises a step change in our approach to space. The spaceship would be truly reusable and this, crucially, would dramatically reduce the cost of access to orbit.
The concept is being driven by Reaction Engines Limited (REL) in Culham, Oxfordshire.
Skylon's key enabling technology is its Sabre propulsion system.
It 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.
This is extremely tricky. At high speeds, the air entering the Sabre intakes would be 1,000 degrees, and it has to be cooled prior to being compressed and burnt with the hydrogen.
Reaction Engines' breakthrough is a remarkable heat exchanger pre-cooler.
Arrays of extremely fine piping plunge the hot intake gases to minus 130C in just 1/100th of a second. Pause and think about that for a moment. That's astonishing.
Since starting this blog, a number of readers have asked "where are we on Skylon?"
Well, at last week's inauguration of the European Space Agency's (Esa) new UK technical centre, I caught up with REL's managing director, Alan Bond.
You can listen to our conversation below. Excuse the clanking in the background; the event organisers were clearing up around us.
As you'll hear, REL has money from several backers, including from Esa, to essentially prove the key technologies, to get them to a stage of readiness where big decisions can then be taken on how to push the Skylon project to the next level.
Europe already has an excellent expendable rocket in the Ariane 5. After its troublesome entry into service in the late 90s, it has become a market leader.
Speak to satellite operators, as I do regularly, and they laud Ariane's performance - but they do grumble at the cost. The "brochure price", as they say, is in the order of 160m euros.
Of course, nothing lasts forever and the talk has now begun as to what might replace it. What will be the Ariane 6?
The French prime minister Francois Fillon initiated this discussion in May [pdf], calling on those European states involved in the Ariane project to start the process of thinking about the next generation.
The idea is to formulate a plan for an Ariane 6 that can be presented to the next big Esa ministerial in 2011. This is the meeting which will decide Europe's space policies and budget through to the middle of the next decade.
Would the UK government dare to put Skylon in that trade space in some form?
This is what Alan Bond wants to see happen... but, as he says, the technology has to be shown to be ready.
"We're working very had to get the necessary demonstrations together to show that technology is there. Our engines rely on very advanced heat exchanges - equivalent to extraordinarily powerful car radiators, in effect - and we're a long way down the route now of demonstrating that."