Next-Gen Space Shuttle to Use Hybrid Engines, Launch from Runway Without Boosters
Engineers… refer to the future craft as the Skylon. The vehicle would have a fuselage reminiscent of the Concorde and take off like a conventional airliner, accelerate to Mach 5.2, and blast out of the atmosphere like a rocket. On the return trip, Skylon would touch down on the same runway it launched from.
Bond’s Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (Sabre)—part chemical rocket, part jet engine—will make Skylon possible. Sabre has the unique ability to use oxygen in the air rather than from external liquid-oxygen tanks like those on the space shuttle…
“The Skylon could be ready to head back to space within two days of landing,” says Mark Hempsell, future-programs director at Reaction Engines. By comparison, the space shuttle, which required an external fuel tank and two rocket boosters, took about two months to turn around (due to damage incurred during launch and landing) and cost $100 million.
Citing Skylon’s simplicity, Hempsell estimates a mission could cost as little as $10 million. That price would even undercut the $50 million sum that private spaceflight company SpaceX plans to charge to launch cargo on its two-stage Falcon 9 rocket.
The engine produces incredible heat as it pushes toward space, and heat is a problem… Sabre must be able to cool that air quickly, before it gets to the turbocompressor. …Reaction Engines… successfully tested the prototype’s ability to inhale blistering-hot air and then flash-chill it without generating mission-ending frost…
The Skylon concept has also impressed the European Space Agency (ESA), which audited Reaction Engines’ designs last year and found no technical impediments to building the craft. The bigger challenge may be securing funding. While ESA and the British government have invested a combined $92 million in the project, Bond and his crew plan to turn to public and private investors for the remaining $3.6 billion necessary to complete the engine, which they say could be ready for flight tests in the next four years. Building the craft itself would require a much heftier investment: $14 billion.
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