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Reaction Engines Talk to the Space Fellowship

Published by Rob on Wed Jan 7, 2009 4:49 pm
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The end of 2008 was a busy year in the world of aerospace, one of the highlights for me was reading the December Update from Reaction Engines.

I came across their updates late in the year and spent some time watching videos and reading articles on the company’s proposals.

The December update introduced me to their STERN Engine, STERN standing for “Static Test of ED Rocket Nozzle”. An update on the 8th of December revealed that the Skylon concept design is being reworked to take it from the configuration C1 to configuration D1.

The update also states “The new vehicle will be slightly bigger, with a 25% increase in payload mass. The payload bay is being resized and there is a revision to the mounting provisions and other payload support features. The new configuration will include the result of a number of technology development programmes almost certainly including an Expansion Deflection Nozzle in the Sabre Engine following the successful STERN Engine test programme.

I got in contact with the team to find out more information about their work. Initially I spoke with Richard Varvill “Technical Director and Chief Designer” he later put me in contact with Mark Hempsell “Future Programmes Director”. Mark was kind enough to talk me through some of the organisations programmes and where they are heading.

I thought it a good idea to try and cover all of the basic questions I had when I first heard about the company; some more in-depth questions were asked later on. So who are Reaction Engines?

Reaction Engines Limited are a small company based in Oxfordshire with expertise in space propulsion systems. It was founded in 1989 by Alan Bond, Richard Varvill and John Scott Scott to continue and exploit the legacy of the BAe HOTOL project.

I asked about Project STERN, this had been the initial attraction for me and it was great to see some engine tests already well underway. Mark explained to me:

As the name “Static Test of ED Rocket Nozzle” (STERN) suggests, this is an experimental rocket motor which explores the flow in Expansion Deflection (ED) nozzles. It is uses gaseous air and hydrogen as propellants to match the airbreathing stage of Skylon’s Sabre engines and has a designed thrust of 5kN. It was first fired in March 2008 and since there have been over 15 successful firings. This project is conducted with the University of Bristol and Airborne Engineering Limited.

A follow on project called STRICT (Static Test Rocket Incorporating Cooled Thrust-chamber) will be started in early2009. This engine will be water cooled allowing extended firing runs (STERN is limited to half a second) and explore heat transfer within the nozzle.

When visiting the Reaction Engines website you are instantly shown a Space Plane concept, a slick black craft not unfamiliar to something you would expect to see in a science fiction movie, an outstanding and unique design. This craft is called “Skylon” See image to the right.

Mark describes the craft as “an unpiloted, reuseable spaceplane intended to provide inexpensive and reliable access to space. It operates like an aircraft, taking off from a runway flying to space and returning to a runway landing. It achieves this by using an airbreathing rocket engine called Sabre (Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine). The vehicle is currently undergoing a revision that will give it a 15 tonne payload to low earth orbit.

You may wonder what their long-term plans are, I asked Mark this, he told me “To contribute key components – in particular the heat exchangers – to the Sabre engines as part of an overall Skylon programme.” When asked about achieving these goals he added they will reach them “By demonstrating that the key technologies needed for the vehicle are flight ready and use that as the basis to encourage a full vehicle development programme

I am also told that they plan to fund this by continuing their past approach with technology development projects that are jointly funded with public money and private investment. With regards to a timetable, Mark added that there is an immediate and funded technology demonstration programme for the next two years. This will then lead in to a full development programme which will probably take a further 8 years.

The team is full of experience, Mark explained that the team brings “25 years of background studies and technical research projects including the BAe HOTOL work. This covers both engine and airframe aspects of the overall concept. The most challenging aspect of this has been the heat exchanger that is now being demonstrated with modules made to the flight design.

There has been talk lately of the WhiteKnightTwo being able to send satellites into orbit, and closer to home the UK has had several organisations vying for spaceflight, Starchaser and Bristol Space Planes to name but a couple. I asked if they had been looking at other organisation, Mark explains:

Reusable launch systems with aircraft like operations and in particular if it can be achieved with single stage to orbit has long been the “holy grail” of astronautics. There have been literally hundreds of proposals to achieve this but the right combination of achievable technology, intelligent system design and commercial realism has remained elusive. We have looked at these carefully (and I personally was involved in the early stages of the McDonnell Douglas Delta Clipper Programme).

Asked about gaining a competitive advantage Mark tells me that this lies with the Sabre airbreathing engine technology combined with the Skylon optimised airframe.

A Hybrid Airbreathing / Rocket Engine, Sabre Represents a Huge Advance over LACE Technology. The design of Sabre evolved from liquid-air cycle engines (LACE) which have a single rocket combustion chamber with associated pumps, preburner and nozzle which are utilised in both modes. LACE engines employ the cooling capacity of the cryogenic liquid hydrogen fuel to liquefy incoming air prior to pumping. Unfortunately, this type of cycle necessitates very high fuel flow.

These problems are avoided in the Sabre engine, which only cools down the air to the vapour boundary and avoids liquefaction. This allows the use of a relatively conventional turbocompressor and avoids the requirement for an air condenser.

Can people get involved with the projects?

Yes. We have an evolving programme that is bringing in an expanding range of hi-tech companies and we expect this to continue.

More can be found on their website at http://www.reactionengines.co.uk/

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