Move to open sky for Skylon spaceplane

Farnborough David Willetts (L) discusses Skylon with Alan Bond (C) and Tim Hayter (R)

The UK government says it is working to put in place the regulations that would license the operation of spaceplanes.

Current arrangements prohibit these vehicles from using European airspace, according to ministers, and they want the certification system updated.

The move is aimed at smoothing the path to market of novel launch systems such as the Skylon concept being developed by Reaction Engines Limited (REL).

The Oxfordshire company's robotic vehicle is part aeroplane, part rocket.

It would take off horizontally from a runway and go straight to orbit without the need for the multiple propellant stages seen in today's throw-away launchers. Skylon would then land back on Earth at the same runway.

Reaction Engines claim the system could dramatically lower the cost of putting satellites in space.

But the vehicle's unique capabilities mean it does not fit into any current regulatory regime, and unless that is changed its entry into service will be blocked.

Speaking at the Farnborough International Airshow, Science Minister David Willetts said he intended to address this issue with both the UK Department of Transport and the European Commission.

"At the moment, there is just a complete gap - there is no European regulatory regime for reusable space vehicles, and we need one," he told BBC News.

Mr Willetts made his comments when he visited the REL stand here at Farnborough.

Skylon concept (Reaction Engines) Skylon would operate from a runway

The company is showcasing its revolutionary Sabre engine technology, which is two-thirds of the way through an important test campaign at its Culham base.

Sabre would burn hydrogen and oxygen to provide thrust - but in the lower atmosphere this oxygen would be taken from the atmosphere.

At high speeds, the engine is required to cope with 1,000-degree gases entering its intake. These have to be cooled prior to being compressed and burnt with the hydrogen.

REL's solution 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 dislocating their operation.

But the company's engineers have 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 full rocket mode to take Skylon into orbit.

It is the critical "pre-cooler" technology with its innovative helium cooling loop that REL is validating currently on an experimental rig at Culham.

Sabre engine: How the test campaign is conducted
Illustation of how the skylon engine works Groundbreaking pre-cooler
  • 1. Pre-cooler

    During flight air enters the pre-cooler. In 1/100th of a second a network of fine piping inside the pre-cooler drops the air's temperature by well over 100C. Very cold helium in the piping makes this possible.
  • 2. Jet engine

    Oxygen chilled in the pre-cooler by the helium is compressed and burnt with fuel to provide thrust. In the test run, a jet engine is used to draw air into the pre-cooler, so the technology can be demonstrated.
  • 3. The silencer

    The helium must be kept chilled. So, it is pumped through a nitrogen boiler. For the test, water is used to dampen the noise from the exhaust gases. Clouds of steam are produced as the water is vapourised.

The company's message here at Farnborough is that the pre-cooler is performing as expected - air flows through the module in a stable and uniform way, free from any vibration.

The pre-cooler has also been run at sub-zero temperatures where frost would be expected to form were it not for the anti-frosting mechanism, although the REL engineers have yet to take the system all the way down to below minus 140C . That will be done in the coming months.

"We've been down to sub-zero temperatures with completely stable operation; we've had steady-state operation for over six minutes," explained Alan Bond, the driving force behind the Skylon concept.

"We've now stopped the programme for the time being, to upgrade our test facilities in order to go down to much lower temperatures. We expect to complete that testing by the end of the year."

The Skylon/Sabre programme is being assessed by the European Space Agency (Esa). Its propulsion experts have been conducting a technical audit at the request of the UK Space Agency, to provide an independent view of the pre-cooler's capabilities and performance.

And the progress is being followed at the highest level within Esa.

"I am a rocket engineer and I have looked at the Skylon project," the Paris-based agency's director-general, Jean-Jacques Dordain, told BBC News.

"We are discussing with Reaction Engines how we can continue to work with them to get some more insights on their project… some more technical studies."

B9 test stand The pre-cooler demonstration is being conducted at REL's HQ in Oxfordshire

So far, only 15% of the funding to run the project has come from public sources; the rest has been private finance.

The company has now appointed a new chief executive, Tim Hayter.

One of his roles is to find the £250m needed to take Skylon/Sabre into its final design phase.

"We need to find investors or strategic partners with the vision and drive to see the long-term on this," he said.

"It's not going to be a quick turn-around [investment], but this is a disruptive technology that could turn launch vehicles on their head and we need people who can see that."

The prospect of some further UK government funding is not out of the question, either.

"We see this as predominantly a commercial project and it has already successfully raised money in the city," said Mr Willetts.

"We are considering whether there is any way we can provide them with further public assistance. No decision has been taken on that yet, and of course the overall budget position for the government is very tight."

Sabre Engine (Reaction Engines) An impression of the Sabre engine with a series of pre-cooler modules
Jonathan Amos, Science correspondent Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    This has to be supported! Been following development since first mentioned on BBC. If this can be made to work the UK will be in the lead with this technology. How many times has this happened yet UK has ended up losing out because of lack of development funding? Crowd funding or Gov funding? Don't care which, support both! @94's e-petition signed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    I and I would guess many who read this blog have already signed this e-petition.
    Crowdfunding sounds like a great idea to me too. Kickstarter itself does not yet allow UK projects so I would probably recomend IndyGoGo as it is a pretty big site. -
    There are UK sites like but they are still far smaller and less well established. ..

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Here's another vote for crowd-funding for this. And a vote just now on @94's e-petition.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    An e-petition. Lets get this 100,000 signatures. Tell your friends, family, colleagues, whatever. It's too important to pass away when you think of the advantages it can bring. It will be jobs, more innovations, inspiration to kids and bring revenue in. Space tourism, faster build of space infrastructure and maybe even a moon station in a decade.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    @91, there is every chance that the Government will make Skylon legal. There is no official law regarding objects that have been put in space, the non-use of nuclear weapons in space does not apply to Europe, and although it is a signed agreement between America and Russia, neither of those are obliged to follow it. It was just a handshake written out on paper.

    If USA doesn't like it, tough!

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Well, some (unexpected) forward thinking from a UK government.

    3 sporpo, 49 jhazz et al, crowdsourcing - I'm in for a grand.

    But I wonder about the booking process. Will Skylon fill in all the forms, go to the Complete Order page and suddenly find they're slapped with a government take-off and landing tax? (and what if they use a debit card!!!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    #90 annodomini2
    "Sounds to me, that you are frustrated with developing your own invention than commenting on the article."

    My point was merely that the law gets in the way with many new inventions - Skylon is only one of many. International and European law over space is a nightmarish bureaucratic tangle and there is every chance the government will not succeed in making Skylon legal..

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    @84. Robert Lucien,

    A car, van or truck can be used as a weapons platform.

    Likewise so can light aircraft.

    Will we see hypersonic war planes made from this technology, if it works, probably!

    Sounds to me, that you are frustrated with developing your own invention than commenting on the article.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    @67. SeasideSteve

    "More likely is that it curently takes 35kWh of electricity to produce 1Kg of Hydrogen. It is cheaper to use kerosene."

    Using electrolysis, as someone else stated, bulk Hydrogen is made from fossil fuels.

    The engine design, cannot, I repeat cannot use kerosene, cryogenic fuels are fundamental to the engine design.

    Hydrogen also has ISP benefits, suitable to rocket systems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    It’s good that we are being pro-active rather than re-active in respect of the law on this. If the Skylon concept can be made to work then it will be a revolutionary change to the way we access space. I just hope that if we can make it work, and don’t just give away our advantage and technology to the Americans like we did with the Jet Engine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    Darren Shepperd (71)

    "...haters will carry on hating and not learn (very) basic physics/ chemistry"

    Excuse me, old chap, I know some very advanced physics, thank you very much. It's just that the amount of science which I (and you!!!) know is miniscule compared to the amount of science which the human race knows in total.

    P.S. I hate to be dogmatic, but it's spelled "catalysing".

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    #83, #84 cont.

    The irony of all the above is that the project I worked on before I started into physics was Strong AI. It had enormous problems with the law over things like the Data Protection laws, but its real dangers were absolutely enormous - and the law offered no protection against them at all. - In fact several laws (free trade laws) would have almost guaranteed a disaster would happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    We need to pour resources into this to make sure we become the world leaders in the Technology as we have done with so many things in the past! the only thing we need to avoid is selling it off cheap as we have done so so many times!

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    #83 Exactly the same problems exist with Skylon - as a hypersonic platform it could potentially be used as a weapons delivery system. - A problem all space craft have and dating back to paranoia in the 1950's.

    (My project couldn't make a bomb BTW, its 'weponizable' characteristic is quite similar to that of a fusion reactor.)

    The real problem is that most legal people don't understand science.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    The law is always a nightmare for anyone trying to design new inventions. Legal rules depend on fixed definitions and simplifications and new inventions twist them out of shape.
    For instance at some point my 'quantum converter' project will almost certainly need a licence as a type of nuclear reactor. The real nightmare wit it though is that it could potentially be classified as a nuclear weapon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Great idea the Government needs to get behind this now as they do for BAE, its what this country needs now. Would create jobs & show us for the inventive nation we really are, lets face it if banks can lose billions and billions into the ether then wheres the harm in £250mill invested into science?from small acorns, big oak trees etc...etc..

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    If we have a chance to get back on our feet, it will be to invest heavily into projects like this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Good for these people in trying to advance us. Some it seems like it better in the cave!

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    See my comment 21; I was correct - the 'travel obsessives' have been out in force.

    When your grandchildren's world dies then they can thank you for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    This is part of the new wave of space vehicles, like Virgin's SS2 and SpaceX's Falcon 9, and I'm all for it. As I've said before, once private enterprise gets involved, the cost of space launches will tumble and it will become profitable to mine asteroids or the Moon for resources growing scarce on Earth.

    That's critical for the future. Let's go to it.


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