WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Rockets are traditionally fuelled using LOX which is expensive, toxic, and prone to blowing up, but now the world’s first air breathing rocket engine is ready for tests.
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The world of supersonic and hypersonic jets – both civilian and military – are going through somewhat of a renaissance with companies like Boeing showing off their stunning hypersonic space plane concept recently, Elon Musk planning on rolling out a hypersonic passenger rocket service, and companies like Lockheed Martin and NASA hoping to bring back the glory days of Concorde. But powering all these aircraft and flights of fancy rely on a whole host of technologies, the most crucial being the engines. Now, in another advance in the sector, a UK company, Reaction Engines, have announced that their new air-breathing rocket engine, SABRE, is ready for a major round of testing after it passed a preliminary design review by the European Space Agency (ESA).
The Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE), which is being developed by the company is unique in its design, which is why it’s garnering so much interest from companies including Boeing and ESA, because unlike other engines it can switch between two modes. In traditional “aircraft engine mode,” it uses oxygen from the atmosphere in the normal way, but it can also switch instantly to “rocket engine mode” that sees it burn an oxidizer carried onboard together with the fuel liquid hydrogen.
The technology, which is deemed particularly promising for suborbital spaceflight and supersonic intercontinental travel, could one day revolutionize space transportation, advocates say.
The engine uses atmospheric air up to an altitude of 15.5 miles (25 kilometers) before switching to rocket mode. The launch vehicle, or space plane, would therefore need to carry less oxygen and so could be lighter and cheaper. SABRE is also designed to be reusable, which could offer further significant cost reductions when compared to other rocket systems out there.
“The positive conclusion of our preliminary design review marks a major milestone in SABRE development,” Mark Ford, the head of ESA’s Propulsion Engineering section, said in a statement. “It confirms [that] the test version of this revolutionary new class of engine is ready for implementation.”
The testing of the demonstrator engine core will take place in Westcott, in the English county of Buckinghamshire, at a new facility that is currently being built by Reaction Engines.
The company previously received 10 million euros ($11.3 million) from ESA and 60 million euros ($67.8 million) from the UK government to fund the development of the technology.
ESA earlier helped Reaction Engines validate the design of the so-called pre-cooler, an essential component of SABRE, which cools the hot airstream entering the engine at hypersonic speed during the aircraft-like portion of SABRE’s operation.
“One of the great advantages of the SABRE propulsion concept is that it is totally modular from both design and operational perspectives,” Reaction Engines Chief Technology Officer Richard Varvill said in the same statement.
“Therefore, it is possible to subject each of the key components of the engine to rigorous ground testing, which fully mimic the operational conditions the engine will face up to Mach 5 flight [five times the speed of sound] at 25-km altitude,” Varvill added.
ESA said launchers equipped with SABRE could be up to 50% lighter than current launchers and possibly offer a higher launch rate due to their reusability.