Skylon: A British dream of space

 

David Shukman watches the Skylon engine test

I'm listening to a countdown. Not in the steamy Florida heat of Cape Canaveral. Or the desert winds of Baikonur in Kazakhstan. Instead this one is under way in a makeshift cabin under drizzly skies in a corner of Oxfordshire.

Some great inventions began in humble surroundings - think Bill Gates and Steve Jobs toiling in their garages - so I'm not being critical.

But as the seconds tick away to the firing up of a revolutionary new British space engine, it's hard not to speculate on its chances of success.

The engine is for the Skylon project, an ambitious scheme for a craft that would realise a long-cherished dream: to fly non-stop from airport to cosmos.

Skylon reminds me of the optimistic days of my childhood when 60s Britain, still humming with aeronautical self-belief, built its own rockets and supersonic warplanes.

Concorde was in the air and it was every schoolboy's conviction that the next inevitable step would see Union Jacks flying in space.

The concept looks pleasingly retro: streamlined, black, Dan Dare sleek. Stubby wings carry two curiously curved engines.

The craft is meant to speed off a runway and accelerate gracefully into orbit in a single blast, perform a task like launching a satellite and then glide back home to its hangar.

A computer animation makes it look easy: no booster rockets, no waste of abandoned fuel tanks, no costly palaver at the launch pad.

A genuine space plane, Skylon would do what the Space Shuttle never could: offer affordable and regular service into orbit.

The key is a unique motor, the Sabre, which serves as jet engine and rocket rolled into one.

Its critical component is an ingenious device that can cool the incoming air almost instantaneously.

At Mach 4 or 5, the air flow would become dangerously hot but this heat exchanger - consisting of a dense and closely-guarded bundle of tiny tubes - would chill things down to a manageable temperature in milliseconds.

Skylon concept (Reaction Engines) Skylon would be repeatedly reusable

This would allow the jet engine to operate at up to five times the speed of sound - an achievement in itself - and make use of the supply of oxygen drawn from the air.

That in turn means less liquid oxygen needs to be carried to oxidize the fuel.

Clever stuff - and potentially game-changing.

Every space launch for the past 60 years has involved blasting off vertically and jettisoning separate stages once the fuel they carry is exhausted.

Skylon would transform all that and last year it passed a key test: a lengthy study by the European Space Agency, funded by the UK government, could not find any obvious obstacles.

It was not an official endorsement but, significantly, it was not a rejection.

So the ambition of a runway-to-orbit craft is not wishful thinking.

It is judged to be technologically plausible, and the tests we are witnessing are designed to prove it.

At the end of the countdown there's a brief silence. But not for long. Within a few seconds the engine roars into life.

Determined optimism

A cloud of steam shoots into the air. The little cabin shakes and feels like it might lift off. We've been briefed on where to muster for safety if the device explodes: basically, get away.

The experiment runs for a noisy 360 seconds. The team are optimistic their design will work.

Start Quote

It's not 'Skylon could make space travel easier'. It's 'Skylon will make space travel easier'”

End Quote Alan Bond Skylon developer

The mastermind, Alan Bond, is determined. He needs to be: he's been involved in the concept since the early 80s, when it was called Hotol, constantly struggling with funding while keeping alive a flame of belief that Skylon represents the future.

Amid the din, my mind wanders to a few other great British inventions, and their fates.

When the last Concorde came into land at Heathrow, I was standing in a field right below it - a high adrenaline moment - but the noise was literally breathtaking.

And that was the plane's undoing. Everyone admired the beautiful lines, and for a while supersonic passenger travel was a reality, but few countries would tolerate the racket so the wonder jet died and no one has tried to replace it.

Will Skylon prove more popular?

On Christmas morning 2003, another feat of British technological wizardry was in action.

Beagle disappointment

The tiny Beagle-2 spacecraft, packed with innovative equipment to search for signs of life, was descending to the surface of Mars.

Like Skylon, it had taken real chutzpah to win support. Also like Skylon, Beagle offered the chance of leapfrogging ahead of Nasa. It had a lot going for it.

Start Quote

Engineering, however ingenious, is not enough to guarantee success”

End Quote

But in the dark of that fateful day we waited for a signal. And waited. No news was bad news: the little space-chic craft, carrying a painting by Damian Hirst and an audio test signal by Blur, vanished without trace.

And in the icy wastes of northern Sweden, I witnessed the death of Britain's chances of being a space power in its own right.

The last truly British rocket, a spindly machine with the delightful name of Skylark, was about to be launched from ESA's Arctic range at Kiruna. It was 2005.

The Skylark was the end of a line that had begun back in headier days of the 1950s. Government funding had then dried up. A hardy band had kept the final batch going, lofting experiments for a few gravity-free minutes.

But long before then the Americans, Russians and Europeans had made massive, well-funded advances and British interest dwindled.

Funding issues

So can Skylon rekindle that dream?

To succeed, it needs to capture a healthy slice of the market for satellite launches. That's the biggest potential earner. But to do that, it must prove viable.

But that is only possible with billions in funding. Will the government provide that?

It likes the project but that kind of money is highly unlikely.

Would the European Space Agency pay? Not if it undermines its own Ariane launcher.

So will the private sector stump up? That's the hope of the project team. But would big backers emerge before they know if Skylon will actually do what it's meant to?

Engineering, however ingenious, is not enough to guarantee success; finance and politics are critical ingredients too. Britain has a thriving space industry but one that focuses on satellites and sensors, not spaceflight.

We step outside. The steam has cleared. Wearing a helmet and face shield, I'm allowed to stand close to the miracle engine. I think aloud as I work out what to say on camera.

Alan Bond, standing close by, hears me say that Skylon 'could make space travel easier.'

He intervenes. "Not 'could'," he says. "It's not 'Skylon could make space travel easier'. It's 'Skylon will make space travel easier'."

I like the team and their ambition and their Britishness. And I admire their grit in the face of so many obstacles.

Alan Bond may yet be proved correct. But right now we really can't tell if his dream will soar beyond Oxfordshire.

 
David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 70.

    Don't hold your breath! As an American I've seen your government squash world-leading projects like this one over and over again. Britain may still have the brilliant engineers and scientists, but your government is determined that they are kept in their garden sheds, where they belong.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 69.

    With anything that flies, weight is the key - obviously. Huge, cumbersome, complicated multi-stage rockets carting massive amounts of heavy liquid oxygen up through our oxygen-rich atmosphere cannot be ideal. Particularly since everything has to work perfectly first time. Surely HOTOL must be the way to go. Velocity gives free lift. Jet engines use free oxygen. Seems right.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 68.

    I regret that even an amatuer can see that this design is not practical. The configuration of engines on wingtips is inherently very unstable - look at most flying aircraft today, very few have engine on wingtip design. Also there is very poor stability, tiny wings at the front will not be enough to provide lateral stability for the whole aircraft. This design is wishful thinking, not reality.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 67.

    Excellent...if this was in America or Germany it would be taking place in a massive purpose-built, climate-controlled hanger. But, as it's Britain it's a couple of blokes in wasteland next to an industrial estate using a test rig made of plywood and B&Q plumbing parts. Rock on lads

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 66.

    Lynn, I'd give anything to be able to read your 'papers'.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 65.

    After being made redundant by universities and institutes, we, a small group of scientists and engineers moved onto commercial sectors. We have sharpened our skills in businesses and industries during this recession.

    Why should my government continue wasting technology funding on those public sector managers, who didn’t create anything in the first place?

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 64.

    I am talking to my government. I hope them to rebuild a funding model for science/engineering businesses to help real inventors and researchers.

    The current funding demoralizes UK inventors and scientists. Senior managers in universities/Institutes doubled their pays, kept the scientific/engineering projects running after young lecturers/inventors were made redundant and pay cut.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 63.

    Who has said you cannot comment? Who do you think your talking to?

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 62.

    By the way, I own a very small company, because my engineer boys have a granted international patent.

    Is it because your institute bigger and your project more expensive than mine, so I have no rights to comment on this subject?

    We have been struggling 1 million times than you, because we don’t have any government support.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 61.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 60.

    Demonstration was my part-time job. I published many science papers in high impact factor journals. Furthermore, I worked in a science institute in Oxfordshire before.

    However, you are absolutely right. I am not worthy. I don’t understand anything.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 59.

    Keep the politicians and the bureaucrats as far away as possible. They interfere, try to take control and insist on slow and expensive changes.
    Follow the American "X" project pattern and leave the engineers to get on with what they do best

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 58.

    AFAIK, this was never intended to go into space, unless the BBC have been lying to me ...

    This is/was a hyper-plane that skips the atmosphere then lands in Oz in less than 2 hours. Or have the destination/financiers changed ?

    It collects its own oxygen from the air - there is no air in space !
    (ramjet etc)

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 57.

    It is a long standing British dream.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MUSTARD

    and those banging on about HOTOL should remeber it had very big problems. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HOTOL

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 56.

    When we let the engineers and scientists run the show, we soar above the rest. So why oh why do we always put the accountants in charge?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 55.

    "I had worked as technology demonstrator for years" that sounds like a sales position, what technology where you demonstrating? You have claimed relevant experience now you seem to be distancing your self from that. They more you say the more it is becoming clear that you do not understand.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 54.

    #27.agapis Leave engineering to the boys, eh?
    If you have a strong bias towards female scientists/engineers (i.e. aliens), why did you even join space industry? Do you remember a song said, “the female of the species is more deadly than the male”?

    #52.
    I had worked as technology demonstrator for years. It won’t help your case if you keep on saying,“you don’t understand it”.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 53.

    People who moan that stuff like this is too expensive are probably half the reason why the economy is down the pan and people don't buy into british ingenuity anymore.

    It's the dreamers that get ahead in history not the moaners, the yanks wouldn't of got anywhere near the moon if the moaners had their say.

    IMO a billion towards a project like this is better than 10 given to the EU for bailouts.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 52.

    Lynn because if we make it easier there is more we can do, in space, our use of space is limited by the cost of launching things. We cannot exploit low G manufacturing at current prices.
    You said you understood the market, what you understand is the current market you have no idea what is not being done because launch costs are so expensive.
    We cannot rely on electronics making everything lighter.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 51.

    Another BIG question to ask is:-

    Why is it so important “to make space travel easier”?

    Why do we have to spend billions of pounds to change two rockets to one rocket for spacemen/spacewomen?

 

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