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Space Science

Spaceplane Concept Receives Euro Funding 193

Posted by samzenpus
from the space-plane-race dept.
draevil writes "BBC News reports that the novel "Skylon" spaceplane design of British firm Reaction Engines has received funding to proceed with its proof-of-concept design for an air-breathing rocket engine. If successful, the Sabre rocket engine will be able to take the Skylon with 12 tonnes of cargo from a runway, to orbit and then back to that runway without the need for disposable components or a piggy-back ride on a larger aircraft. Should the design prove viable, it could see first use within ten years."
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Spaceplane Concept Receives Euro Funding

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    I think the only ones who do this stuff successfully are the Americans.

    As an American living in Britain I'm embarrassed that there is no British space program. Perhaps this can be the start of one - but more likely, the European financing will be half-ass or the British government will pull the plug on it somehow.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by MichaelSmith (789609)

      I think the only ones who do this stuff successfully are the Americans.

      An Australian team has flown a scramjet.

      • by PachmanP (881352)

        An Australian team has flown a scramjet.

        but it wasn't as good as ours! Something about positive thrust or some such mumbojumbo

    • by drsquare (530038)

      As an American living in Britain I'm embarrassed that there is no British space program.

      There is one, it's called the ESA. Having our own space program would be hideously expensive, it makes more sense to pool resources with a continent.

  • ...to save a few hundred kilos of oxidiser. On the ground they won't be moving fast enough to scoop oxygen out of the air. In less than a minute they will be too high and fast to use anything from the atmosphere. Once effectively out of the atmosphere most of the work remains to be done so that will have to use stored oxygen.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 20, 2009 @05:37AM (#26926619)

      It does work on the ground. It is not a scramjet. It is a hybrid between a jet engine and a rocket engine. It uses a jet style rotary compressor. The big innovation appears to be very fine control of the liquid hydrogen injectors into the combustion chamber allowing pressurised but gaseous air to be used instead of the liquefied air/oxygen that all previous rocket designs have needed.

      • by Ihmhi (1206036)

        So in theory not only could this plane get itself up into space, but it could refuel itself on the ground as well? I don't see how adding a few onboard air compressors for ground-based refueling would hurt.

        The U.S. Marines have been looking for stuff like this so they can get around that pesky 50-mile-high airspace and deploy rapidly anywhere around the world. If it could refuel itself on the ground as well, that "12 tons of cargo" could be used to accomidate more than a few soldiers, armor, built-in counte

        • by oodaloop (1229816)
          Yeah, the Marine Corps was looking to do this at least 10 years ago, but then it was a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (division-plus sized). They wanted to lift off an entire MEB and set it down anywhere in the world in something like 12 hours (the standing mission is to get a Marine Expeditionary Unit [regiment sized] anywhere in the world in 72 hours, by ship). I think it would probably cost the entire Navy's annual budget in liquid oxygen to lift off all those armored vehicles. A MEB has at least a comp
          • by AGMW (594303)
            Then there's all the LAVs ...

            Sheeez! Plus the guy handing out smellies for tips presumably! Who'd have though the US military would be so picky! Can't a soldier take a leak against a wall anymore?

        • I'm just guessing here, but I would think it is basically a turbojet engine with an afterburner (which dumps extra fuel into the exhaust for extra thrust) which has already been used reliably on most fighters for decades, and has archived MACH 3 at very high altitude. But this one starts dumping oxygen into the exhaust as well, when the engine starts to become starved of oxygen. Actually, the major drawback of traditional afterburners is that they are very inefficient because there is not much oxygen left
        • Take off, land, complete objective, and take off again after refueling.

          I'm guessing this thing needs a loooooonnnggg runway to land and get off the ground again ... so that means no commando missions to/from a dirt airstrip in the jungle.

      • by Thelasko (1196535)

        The big innovation appears to be very fine control of the liquid hydrogen injectors into the combustion chamber allowing pressurised but gaseous air to be used instead of the liquefied air/oxygen that all previous rocket designs have needed.

        From my understanding of the Wikipedia article [wikipedia.org] on the subject, they are using the compressor, a cooler and a special membrane to produce liquid oxygen from the air. This liquid oxygen is then burned in a traditional rocket engine. This would give the vehicle the ability to breathe regular air in the atmosphere, and use LOX while in space. Such a vehicle is, in theory, much lighter than what we have now, due to the lower quantities of LOX required at takeoff.

    • The Sabre isn't taking anything into orbit, then, is it...

      FTFA..."As the air density falls with altitude the engine eventually switches to a pure rocket propelling Skylon to orbital velocity..."

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by MichaelSmith (789609)

        the engine eventually switches to a pure rocket

        The best possible case is that it might be able to use air at mach 7. That is one third of orbital velocity. I don't think the word "eventually" is appropriate in this context. In practice I doubt this engine can be an air breather anywhere near that speed.

        • by StevePole (1450559) on Friday February 20, 2009 @07:06AM (#26926949)

          The engine is air breathing up to mach 5.5, it can do this because of a) it's novel pre-cooler design, and b) because unlike other air breathing designs, it doesn't liquefy the oxygen before using it as fuel, it 'merely' takes it to it's vapour point.

          After mach 5.5 it operates as a relatively standard rocket engine up to orbital velocity (~mach 25) but by that point it's high enough that it doesn't have to fight through the thick air near the earth's surface so saves a lot of fuel. This increases the percentage of launch weight that can be used for payload.

          • by drerwk (695572)

            b) because unlike other air breathing designs, it doesn't liquefy the oxygen before using it as fuel, it 'merely' takes it to it's vapour point.

            Can you point me to a reference describing an air breathing engine that liquefies the incoming air before using it as a fuel? The thermodynamics of that don't sound right to me.

            • I don't think a liquid air collection engine (LACE) was ever successful, but there were preliminary designs for some (don't know about prototypes). Here's a short article on the subject:

              http://www.astronautix.com/lvs/aerplane.htm [astronautix.com]

              By keeping the air a gas, it simplifies the plumbing while still letting you use essentially a rocket engine design (liquid fuel is vapourised before burning anyway, usually by using it to cool the nozzle).

              The downside to this is that water vapour will freeze on the cooling fins/s

    • by bpkiwi (1190575) on Friday February 20, 2009 @06:04AM (#26926711)
      a few hundred kilos of oxidiser
      The oxidiser weighs a lot. Take the shuttle for instance, at take-off the shuttle proper weighs 109,000 kg, the external LOX tank? 629,340 kg (just the LOX, not the LH2).

      On the ground they won't be moving fast enough to scoop oxygen out of the air
      "The Sabre engine is essentially a closed cycle rocket engine with an additional precooled turbo-compressor to provide a high pressure air supply to the combustion chamber. This allows operation from zero forward speed on the runway and up to Mach 5.5 in air breathing mode during ascent."
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jeroen94704 (542819)
      That would be true for a (sc)ramjet, which has no compressor turbine to suck in oxygen at low speeds. As I understand it, the whole idea of the Sabre engine was that it IS able to suck in atmospheric oxygen, so it doesn't need the LOX it carries until it reaches Mach 5.5.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Aceticon (140883)

      They intend for it to take-off and land like a normal aircraft.

      That means that at the start of the trip this vehicle will be in a horizontal position accelerating parallel to the ground.

      You're better off thinking of it as an aircraft that can fly really high and turn into a space plane, which as a completely different paradigm from the "rocket pointing skywards and going up as fast as possible".

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      It's not that they're trying to save oxidiser, they're trying to save propellant of all kinds.

      The problem with rockets is that you have to run at full exhaust speed at all times, and that costs fuel, because a high exhaust speed implies a lot of energy. But at low vehicle speeds, a high exhaust speed just means you're throwing exhaust backwards very fast- you really want the exhaust speed and the vehicle speeds to be similar. That's how turbofans work, and why A380s don't use turbojets or rockets.

      If you don

  • About Time! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by BlueStrat (756137) on Friday February 20, 2009 @05:24AM (#26926563)

    ..That someone built a spaceplane. Too bad the US is busy cutting NASA budgets to fund a new welfare program.

    Strat

    • Re:About Time! (Score:4, Insightful)

      by prefec2 (875483) on Friday February 20, 2009 @06:32AM (#26926831)
      I would always favor social welfare over a space plane in this decade. However, the USA are using so much money on their military, so it would be more useful to cut on military expenses for space flight. But first the current president has to cleanup the mess Bush made. BTW. in France and Germany the state is spending most of its money on social/welfare aspects instead of investing too much money in weapons. This is very reasonable because violence can not be stopped by more violence. And I really cannot understand why previous post is moderated insightful. I like space science very much, but I wouldn't trade the well being of my fellow citizens for a space plane.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by BlueStrat (756137)

        I would always favor social welfare over a space plane in this decade

        I believe that having things like the space program not only helps employment, but also brings progress in many many fields that benefit society and help reduce the need for social programs.

        BTW. in France and Germany the state is spending most of its money on social/welfare aspects instead of investing too much money in weapons.

        France and Germany can afford to do this precisely because the US spends so much on the military and subsidizes

        • by CRCulver (715279)

          France and Germany can afford to do this precisely because the US spends so much on the military and subsidizes & assists Frances' and Germany's defense.

          The assertion that Europe has the welfare state only because America is covering their defense doesn't entirely hold water. Finland, for example, has never elected to join in a defense pact with the US. Nonetheless, it has built on its own one of the strongest armies in Europe (defense analysts suggest it could hold off another offense by the Russian a

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by BlueStrat (756137)

            The assertion that Europe has the welfare state only because America is covering their defense..

            I never stated that it was the only reason, but it does contribute hugely along with confiscatory levels of taxes and other forms of wealth transference from the people to the government.

            Finland, for example, has never elected to join in a defense pact with the US. Nonetheless, it has built on its own one of the strongest armies in Europe (defense analysts suggest it could hold off another offense by the Russian

        • by oliderid (710055)

          France and Germany can afford to do this precisely because the US spends so much on the military and subsidizes & assists Frances' and Germany's defense.

          No. they can afford it because they pay high taxes. If you had to pay similar taxes in the US (21% VAT, 40% on income, etc.), there would be a civil war.

      • I would always favor social welfare over a space plane in this decade.

        Temporal Penalty: 10 years. Please throw your cell phone in the nearest garbage collection unit, and pick up your Pentium II laptop at the door.

        kulakovich
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        ...instead of investing too much money in weapons. This is very reasonable because violence can not** be stopped by more violence.

        ** except in the case of 99.9% of wars, genocides, personal struggles, and all other forms of violence.

      • by MaWeiTao (908546)

        There are people out there who legitimately need financial help from the government. However, most do not. What they need is to be educated in fending for themselves and no relying on government to support them. Entitlement programs need to stop. Investing in space programs will do far, far more for the well-being of the nation in the long run than handing out welfare checks.

        Furthermore, France, Germany and much of the rest of Europe is going through some hard times. Unlike many Americans who seem to believ

    • by spasm (79260)

      Funny thing - the UK already has a comprehensive welfare system..

  • Good for them! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by lee1026 (876806) on Friday February 20, 2009 @05:26AM (#26926581)

    While the chances of this thing actually working is very slim, it is a very smart move to fund this sort of thing. At a million euros a pop, you can afford to fund a awful lot of projects that goes no where in order to find the diamond in the rough.

    • Except this is about the tenth time they've been funded over the last twenty years, with nothing to show for it but ever spiffier computer graphics.

  • more info (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    There has been some info about them on slashdot a while back http://science.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=09/01/12/0135200 [slashdot.org]
  • by djupedal (584558) on Friday February 20, 2009 @05:33AM (#26926605)

    >"...the Sabre rocket engine will be able to take the Skylon with 12 tonnes of cargo..."

    That should read "two Sabre rocket engines will be able to take a Skylon with 12 tonnes of cargo..."

    That is 13.225 US Short Tons...or approximately 6 tons per engine, if the illustration [reactionengines.co.uk] is any indication.

  • by physburn (1095481) on Friday February 20, 2009 @05:33AM (#26926607) Homepage Journal
    Alan Bond [wikipedia.org] has been trying to fund an air breathing space plane since the mid 80s and the HOTOL project. This grant he's just got will allow the research to go on and a few rocket engineering PhD at a couple of UK universities, but its nowhere near the funding needed to build a real space plane. With luck though the technology might grow on, and end up in some space plane for the 2020s.

    Space Craft [blogknox.com] Blog feeds

  • by Kupfernigk (1190345) on Friday February 20, 2009 @05:35AM (#26926611)
    Unfortunately the UK has a long history of underfunded research and development projects that fizzle - Blue Streak, anyone? Significantly, the most successful British rocket project of recent years was the car that broke the sound barrier, and Richard Noble and Andy Green are now trying to build one to exceed 1000mph. Significantly, because when Noble was trying to get funding, BAe actually sent a memo around its engineers telling them not to co-operate as the inevitable failure would bring them into disrepute.

    Give the money to Noble. He'll use it to train the next generation of advanced engineers on a fun project that will actually go somewhere. Looking at the history to date of US efforts to develop scramjets (and this thing is basically an extended scramjet and therefore even more complex and expensive) a million Euros won't even pay for the project manager's office.

    • by ianare (1132971)
      Sure, except the funding isn't comming from the UK, it's coming from the ESA. The ESA does have a solid history of completing expensive and difficult projects (the ATV comes to mind). As mentioned in the press release [reactionengines.co.uk], labs in Germany will also be helping Reaction Engines with testing and development.

      The Noble rocket car project is a lot of fun, and good inspiration for future engineers, but this new engine technology (not a scramjet BTW) has the potential to completly revolutionise space travel.
  • by Bearhouse (1034238) on Friday February 20, 2009 @08:29AM (#26927387)

    http://science.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=09/02/20/0149254 [slashdot.org]

    If it works, then maybe the power guys will have what they need to take their stuff up.

    But it's a very big 'if' IMHO...the current shuttle show the tremendous problems associated with 'reusable' spacecraft, and even then they launch it conventionally.

    • I don't think that the current Shuttle says anything about the problems in designing reusable spacecraft in this day and age.

      The current shuttle was built by engineers who used sliderules at their desks, because this was done years before the first desktop computers, and pocket calculators were slower than what someone with undergraduate skills in any of the hard sciences could do with a slipstick. Those engineers kept their development notes by hand in three ring binders since none of them had routine ac

  • Yes. Seriously. Behold the Skylon [reactionengines.co.uk]
    and its distant descendant, the Firefly class spacecraft [wikipedia.org].
    Joss, you clever boy.
    -S
  • Vaporware or not, this is the type of thing the US should still be doing as well - remember the old National Aerospace Plane (NASP) program in the 80s? Kudos to the British for at least attempting to push the frontiers of aerospace science and technology.
  • Alan Bond and crew have been talking about Skylon/HOTOL for decades with nothing to show. They've had funding in the past and produced nothing. Compare to SpaceX who have taken a fairly conservative concept and run with it from idea to orbit in well under a decade.

    The main problem with Skylon and the Sabre engine is that both engine and airframe need unobtainium to work. Active-cooled sharp aerosurfaces are a nightmare problem for reentry - plus the engine gets exposed to reentry-like conditions throughout

    • by WolfWithoutAClause (162946) on Friday February 20, 2009 @03:49PM (#26933623) Homepage

      You're wrong about the engines, the engines are actively cooled at the inlet- they see ground level conditions throughout the flight.

      You're also wrong about nitrogen, nitrogen is perfectly good reaction mass up to about Mach 5. Beyond that it tends to come apart. Guess what speed Skylon calls it quits and turns on the rockets?

      The other point you're missing is that at low speeds rockets are horribly inefficient; the exhaust velocity is much too high. By using the nitrogen as reaction mass; powered by the hydrogen fuel reacting with atmospheric oxygen Skylon can reduce the exhaust velocity and get massively better efficiency. That means it needs a lot less propellant, and then when it does turn on the rockets, it has performance in hand. The design has twice the payload fraction of a rocket design because of that.

Premature optimization is the root of all evil. -- D.E. Knuth

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