Spaceplane that takes off from airport runway could be ready in 10 years

Sep 21, 2010 by Lisa Zyga report
Skylon takes off and lands on a normal runway, reducing the launch cost. Image credit: Reaction Engines.

(PhysOrg.com) -- An unpiloted, air-breathing spaceplane that takes off from an airport runway, carries up to 30 passengers, and costs less than one-tenth to launch into space compared to a conventional rocket could be ready to fly in 10 years, according to its developers, Reaction Engines of Oxfordshire, UK. Although the spaceplane is currently in the proof-of-concept phase, the country's new UK Space Agency is hosting a workshop this week to discuss developing the spaceplane commercially. If successful, the spaceplane could be the first single-stage-to-orbit craft to reach orbit.

The spaceplane, called Skylon, is 82 meters long and has a 25-meter wingspan. Like an airplane, the spaceplane takes off and lands horizontally from a typical airport runway. Traveling at speeds of up to Mach 25, the vehicle could reach altitudes of 460 km (285 miles). It could carry payloads of up to 12 tonnes (twice that of a normal rocket), as well as about 30 passengers.

Skylon has no external rockets, but is propelled by two hybrid air-breathing/rocket engines that burn liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. In the first phase, the vehicle combines air from the atmosphere with on-board liquid hydrogen to reach speeds of Mach 5.5. In the second phase, on-board liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propel the vehicle to orbital velocities of Mach 25. Before take-off, the spaceplane weighs 275 tonnes, but only 55 tonnes when landing. The weight difference is due to the on-board fuel: at take-off, the vehicle carries about 66 tonnes of liquid hydrogen and 150 tonnes of liquid oxygen. Before re-entering the atmosphere, any unused is evaporated and vented overboard, since re-entry is easier for lighter vehicles.

It will cost an estimated $12 billion to develop the spaceplane (about the same amount that it costs to develop an jet). It would cost an additional $10 million per launch, compared to the approximately $150 million cost of a rocket launch. The company predicts that a trip to orbit for two weeks would cost tourists about $500,000 per seat.

Skylon can reach speeds of up to Mach 25 and altitudes of up to 460 km (285 miles). Image credit: Reaction Engines.

For these reasons, Reaction Engines expects that Skylon could replace the space shuttles that travel to the International Space Station, as well as revolutionize space travel and offer the potential for space-based industry. The company predicts that there is a market for up to 70 reusable Skylon spaceplanes worldwide.

“You can imagine a situation when some of our industrially important but polluting processes are done in and the finished products are brought back down to Earth,” said Richard Varvill, technical director and one of the founders of Reaction Engines.

Explore further: HI-SEAS crew wraps up mock mission with pictures of their Hawaiian adventure

More information: reactionengines.co.uk
via: The Engineer and Daily Mail

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User comments : 28

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JES
5 / 5 (5) Sep 21, 2010
Please make it happen!
TAz00
3 / 5 (1) Sep 21, 2010
And fit some scramjets on it to. youtube (dot) com/watch?v=06v6_2XbJtw
Birger
3 / 5 (1) Sep 21, 2010
The complexity makes me skeptic...it is simpler to use a spaceplane as first (sub-orbital) stage, and an expendable second stage to reach orbit. Since the second stage is always much smaller than the first stage, it is no great economic loss, while making the whole craft much simpler, and it will be unnecessary to build the hull and wings of "unobtanium", capable of extreme temperatures.
In fact, a first iteration of the craft might do fine even without the scramjets for the first stage...such engines are bound to be so technologically complex that the increased efficiency is partly offset by cost (and development delays). A simple rocket like the Russian SL-7 (in use since 1957) is still cheaper in terms of pound to orbit than the very complex space shuttle.
RHIC
5 / 5 (5) Sep 21, 2010
A second stage would increase development costs substantially- as they would need to develop 2 stages- that is one of the key benefits of an SSTO design.
Also, much of the vehicle is built using conventional technology that is already flight proven (fuel/ox tanks are standard Aluminium-Lithium alloy), or at a high TRL level (6-7), eg. they have lab tested the aeroshell; they can get away with materials far different from the space shuttles tiles because the vehicle ballistic coefficient is much lower than the shuttle. This is where the low density of hydrogen is of benefit, as it makes the vehicle 'fluffy'.
It is also worth remembering that various certain aspects of this design have already flown- the SR-71 had translating intakes to control the shock on the engine intake. The largest unknown is the pre-cooler technology, and they already have test scheduled for next summer to verify this aspect of the design.
Paracelsus
5 / 5 (4) Sep 21, 2010
Skylon is a great project, was just reading about it the other day. Frankly, though, spaceplanes have been 'just 10 years off' for the last 35 years.
Nik_2213
5 / 5 (1) Sep 21, 2010
'build the hull and wings of "unobtanium" '
No need: If you work through Reaction Engine's site, you'll see the hull and wing design is 'old technology'. Hopefully, they can get their antipodal jet design flying, too, as that would offset the Sabre engine's costs...
Ravenrant
5 / 5 (4) Sep 21, 2010
This sounds like a great idea if feasible. The fuel is perfect, a commercial dream. It's renewable and non-polluting (totally non-polluting if it's produced by non-polluting energy) which means we could fly as many as we want.

We need the cowboy/pioneer mentality for space. If the people that discovered and settled this country were using NASA and the govs safety regulations this country would still belong to the indians (not necessarily a bad thing). We need to be a little less safety conscious, accept the fact that exploring space is dangerous and there are gong to be people dying doing it for a long time, get over it. I guarantee there will be no shortage of volunteers to fly and work out there. Maybe the commercialization of space will get that pioneer attitude going again.
mechengineer
not rated yet Sep 21, 2010
Scramjets do not have any moving parts, as they use compression to create the necessary thrust. The complexity is more from control and materials. Construction should not be a problem though.
Shootist
3.4 / 5 (5) Sep 21, 2010
I'd love to see this. Hell, I'd love to see anything.

We were 'supposed' to put Man on Mars, in '85. I doubt I'll live to see us land again on the Moon.
patnclaire
4 / 5 (4) Sep 21, 2010
So this is the Aurora that all the UFO nuts have been talking about. Interesting. Fanjet to Ramjet to Scramjet. Just think. We are in the Wright Flyer level of the spaceplanes. Who are our Orville's and Wilburs and Glenn Curtis' and Steermans and Earharts and Lindbergs and Hughes?
Starbound
5 / 5 (2) Sep 21, 2010
Oh dear, this seems a bit too good to be true. I'd love to be proven wrong.
CarolinaScotsman
not rated yet Sep 21, 2010
Skylon is a great project, was just reading about it the other day. Frankly, though, spaceplanes have been 'just 10 years off' for the last 35 years.

Longer. I remember reading of them being "just around the corner" in the 1950s. The old X-15 inspired a lot such stories and predictions.
googleplex
not rated yet Sep 21, 2010
If concorde wasn't cost effective then how can this be?
The fact is that most people are simply not willing to spend double or more for supersonic air travel when compared with sub-sonic commerical air travel.
The more compelling business case would be for He airships especially for freight.
Space elevator would be the only thing that keeps the cost down to make space flight viable.
TehDog
5 / 5 (1) Sep 21, 2010
Some more details, and a little history here :-
http://www.thereg...borough/

Looks like the pre-cooler and combustion chambers will make or break this project, I hope they succeed.
Javinator
not rated yet Sep 21, 2010
Google.

Read the article. Seriously.
DamienS
5 / 5 (1) Sep 22, 2010
If concorde wasn't cost effective then how can this be?
The fact is that most people are simply not willing to spend double or more for supersonic air travel when compared with sub-sonic commerical air travel.

That wasn't really the Concorde's downfall. Plenty people would pay extra for a significantly shorter trip. What killed the Concorde was its limited passenger capacity, infrequent flights, severely restricted flight paths due to sonic boom issue, too costly to operate and finally, safety.

RHIC
5 / 5 (2) Sep 22, 2010
@DamienS:
Also, the British and French operators significantly upgraded their fleet following the accident, including kevlar-lining the fuel tanks and burst-resistant tyres. They also changed the interior to keep it looking modern. There is a really interesting Channel-4 (UK) documentary about the Concorde accident- you might still be able to get it.
Concorde's return-to-flight was shortly before the events of 09/11, business was never the same after that.
CaptainPlanet331
not rated yet Sep 22, 2010
This isn't smart we need to conserve all of the resources that we can especially the nonrenewable ones. We should wait until make a successful transition to another energy source before shuttling VIP's into orbit. Furthermore we are only a type 0 civilization.
StandingBear
1 / 5 (3) Sep 22, 2010
Make it simpler, use hydrino propulsion. This is a material not like any other on earth and made from hydrogen. See blacklightpower.org for details of how it burns with a far ultraviolet flame and produces energy in between chemical and nuclear fission just from combustion, but no radiation. Probably has a high specific impulse. Government made experiments on it at Rowan University and then promptly sat on the results and refused to say more. Course oil companies would sell no more oil rockets if it became known that one of these craft could go single stage to orbit, return, and do it again without refueling....and still have enough fuel to go to Mars and orbital rondevous with a station there. Just go lookin before this post disappears.
baudrunner
3 / 5 (2) Sep 22, 2010
You can imagine a situation when some of our industrially important but polluting processes are done in space and the finished products are brought back down to Earth,


Oh, yeah? What's to prevent those pollutants from filtering back into our atmosphere? Gravity has a tendency to attract things. In fact, dangerous and highly polluting manufacturing processes should be restricted to Earth-bound facilities. We have to deal with those by-products right here. Plus, I don't want to pay an exhorbitant premium price for products just because they are manufactured in space. Let's be realistic.
mg1
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 25, 2010
My goodness you can tell all the Americans chatting about stupid rediculous things. Add this, do this, what about this. Maybe some go faster stripes here...

Then the Brits come along and use "old technology" and our superior intelligence and long story short yes it will be flying in 10 years.

When an American says something will be done, you can count on it being 10 times over budget, expensive to operate, not reusable and need constant modification and adjustments.

When a Brit says something will be done, it is.
Quantum_Conundrum
not rated yet Sep 25, 2010
If the claims of this article are true, the most cost-efficient use of this craft would be to transport building materials and worker robots into space to make space platforms and colonies.

They would quickly run out of multi-millionaires and billionaires to pay for the 500k per 2 weeks vacations, and probably long before even one craft paid for itself.

Still, that would be around $2500 per pound for a 200 pound man, and we haven't counted the life support, food, and other accomodations per person, which means that they are basicly claiming a launch cost of less than $2000 per pound payload to 460km altitude, which is about 6 times cheaper than NASA's price to the space station, after all these years.
Delphinus100
not rated yet Sep 26, 2010
This isn't smart we need to conserve all of the resources that we can especially the nonrenewable ones. We should wait until make a successful transition to another energy source before shuttling VIP's into orbit. Furthermore we are only a type 0 civilization.


The vehicle burns hydrogen, not an actual fossil fuel. But having said that, unfortunately, it's currently easier to get hydrogen from methane than to break it from water. Various research labs are looking into solar-driven means of doing the latter, and this would benefit far more than space launchers. If that's your concern, that's where your support should go.

Nor is this just for 'VIPs' any more than a 747 is...
Delphinus100
not rated yet Sep 26, 2010
If concorde wasn't cost effective then how can this be?
The fact is that most people are simply not willing to spend double or more for supersonic air travel when compared with sub-sonic commerical air travel.
The more compelling business case would be for He airships especially for freight.
Space elevator would be the only thing that keeps the cost down to make space flight viable.


Concorde had to compete with existing modes of long-range flight, and allowed to do so on a limited number of routes for sonic boom reasons.

If Skylon performs as advertised, and the alternatives in its payload class are still expendable launchers, then there IS no competition...

And space elevators (which are a slow ride [including through the Van Allen belts] to geostationary orbit, and can't help LEO users) require megatons of materials that are currently made only in laboratory quantities.

Skylon doesn't.
Delphinus100
not rated yet Sep 26, 2010
yeah? What's to prevent those pollutants from filtering back into our atmosphere? Gravity has a tendency to attract things. In fact, dangerous and highly polluting manufacturing processes should be restricted to Earth-bound facilities. We have to deal with those by-products right here. Plus, I don't want to pay an exhorbitant premium price for products just because they are manufactured in space. Let's be realistic.


And as anyone who's looked at the question of orbital debris knows, centrifugal force has a tendency to *keep* things up there.

In any case, it's unrealistic to expect waste products of space manufacturing to be like 'smokestacks in orbit...'

And for simple business reasons, only products that can be made either better or only where unlimited microgravity and/or vacuum are available, would be made in space. And even then, only if something like Skylon makes transportation to and from orbit economically practical, or it would be happening already.
Delphinus100
not rated yet Sep 26, 2010
And fit some scramjets on it to. youtube (dot) com/watch?v=06v6_2XbJtw


It's not that simple. That means staying in the atmosphere longer, at higher speeds, in order to get oxygen. And *that* means more thermodynamic issues at higher speeds, more exotic materials because of that, a heavier vehicle design (because much of the vehicle forebody/underbody must become part of the intake structure), and a heavier engine for the same thrust, compared to pure rockets.

Skylon's designers very deliberately stayed away from ramjets, supersonic combustion or otherwise, as papers at their website explain:

http://www.reacti...-117.pdf (p. 110)

For cruising in the atmosphere at high Mach numbers, scramjets may be good. For flight to orbit, they're truly more trouble than they're worth.
trantor
not rated yet Sep 27, 2010
And fit some scramjets on it to. youtube (dot) com/watch?v=06v6_2XbJtw


pal, the Skylon projet IS MORE revolutionary than a scramjet, and much lighter. Read more at Wikipedia about SABRE ENGINE.
trantor
not rated yet Sep 27, 2010
If concorde wasn't cost effective then how can this be?


Concorde was a commercial plane. The Skylon IS NOT supposed to be a commercial plane.

Reaction Engines however DO HAVE plans for a suborbital mach5-6 plane: Lapcat.

How about you people visit Reaction Engine´s website? Its a neat website.