New engine developed by Reaction Engines is receiving £60 million of government funding
Flight times from Britain to Australia could be cut to just four hours by the 2030s following development of a new hypersonic engine.
The announcement was made at the UK Space Conference by the head of the UK Space Agency. The new ‘Sabre’ engine is being developed by the Oxfordshire-based space manufacturer Reaction Engines. The company is in the process of building a hybrid hydrogen air-breathing rocket which will allow a plane to fly at Mach 5.4 – more than twice the speed of Concorde – then speed up to to Mach 25 in space.
Flight times from London to NY in just over an hour
‘Sabre’ would allow speedier journeys – cutting flight times between London and New York to just over an hour. The hydrogen/oxygen engine would also make flight greener and cheaper than current air travel. The government has already invested £60 million in the engine, which has been matched by Rolls Royce, BAE Systems, and Boeing.
The new Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine (Sabre) – works by chilling incoming air from 1800F (1000C) to zero using tiny tubes of super-cooled helium. The captured heat is also used to power the engine. The hybrid engine allows a spaceplane to take off horizontally and reach speeds of Mac 5.4 – 4,000 mph for fast commercial travel, and also switch to rocket mode, allowing for space travel at Mach 25 (19,000mph). The new engine could be used in the automotive industry and motorsport, or for energy production, as well as aerospace.
Rocket breathes air
The Telegraph reports Shaun Driscoll of Reaction Engines speaking at the UK Space Conference, in Newport. He said: “The main thing with Sabre is it’s like a hybrid of a rocket engine and an aero engine, so it allows a rocket to breathe air.”
“Most rockets are vertically launched, and if you look at spacecraft you have a tiny satellite at the top and a huge massive rocket, because just carrying fuel means you need more fuel so it’s a horrible cycle. Rockets really haven’t progressed in 70 years, whereas aero engines have become very efficient, so if you can combine an aero engine and a rocket you can have a very lightweight efficient propulsion system and basically create a space plane.
“The challenge of going very fast to escape the atmosphere you have to go hypersonic, and you generate a lot of heat travelling fast. Our pre-cooler takes air that arrives at 1,000 degrees centigrade and cools it down to zero in one twentieth of a second in something you can get your arms around. The physics checks out but the challenge is building a test regime.”
Britain and Australia create ‘space bridge’
Britain has also agreed to work more closely with Australia to create a ‘space bridge’ partnership, bringing the two countries closer together. Graham Turnock, CEO of the UK Space Agency, said: “I really like the concrete sense of a bridge linking us, and when we have brought the Sabre rocket engine to fruition, that may in a sense be the manifestation of that space bridge, enabling us to get to Australia in perhaps as little as four hours.”
“Once you’ve got hypersonic engines operating then that kind of journey time is achievable. This is technology that could definitely deliver that. We’re talking the 2030s for operational service, and the work is already very advanced.”
Reaction Engines is currently trialling parts of the engine in Denver, Colorado, and hopes to begin test flights in the mid 2020s, before commercial flights in the 2030s.