Air-breathing planes: the spaceships of the future?
For decades, engineers have dreamed of a better way: a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle that would be lighter, cheaper, and easy to reuse. A fleet of these vehicles, supporters say, could be almost as easy to maintain as conventional jet planes, reducing the preparation time before each launch from months to days or even hours.
Since most of a rocket’s weight is taken up by oxidiser, one logical approach is to save weight by developing an engine that can use oxygen from the atmosphere to burn fuel at least part of the way.
Are we getting any closer to this goal? Last week, the UK firm Reaction Engines announced they had received â‚¬1 million from the European Space Agency to develop three key parts for an air-breathing rocket engine. The firm hopes those components could one day help fulfill a decades-old plan to build a space plane called Skylon, which could take off and land on a runway like a conventional jet.
But Skylon isn’t the only game in town. New Scientist takes a look at air-breathing technology and what it could mean for the future of spaceflight.
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