Reaction Engines Celebrates 20 Years, Looks Forward to Success with Skylon




On 15th August 2009, this Oxfordshire aerospace company celebrated its 20th anniversary. Reaction Engines Ltd (REL) has been developing the SKYLON spaceplane, a progression from the HOTOL project, over the past 2 decades and believes that a single stage to orbit (SSTO) reusable launch vehicle (RLV) is the future of global Space travel.

The secret to SKYLON’s success is its innovative SABRE engine which possesses the dual capability to be in air-breathing mode up to 30km and Mach 5 before switching to rocket mode.

Over the past six years, Reaction Engines Ltd has conducted vital studies on and development to the SKYLON concept. The company undertook significant R&D work on its wind tunnel in 2004 which enabled successful frost control studies to take place in 2005. 2005 also saw Reaction Engines Ltd’s custom-designed engine testing facility come to fruition at the B9 test area at Culham Science Centre; the facility has been used to conduct cryogenic testing of components, and in particular, advanced heat exchangers. In 2007 a dumb pre-cooler was installed at B9 in order to simulate a pre-cooler existing in front of an engine. Intensive studies on the LAPCAT A2 hypersonic airliner deflected further testing in the latter part of 2007. An experimental turbine, similar to that used in a SABRE or SCIMITAR engine, successfully demonstrated the robust performance of a counter-rotating stator-less turbine in 2008. Despite the turbine testing being terminated early due to a blade failure, the necessary data were successfully acquired.

Since 2005 the manufacture of heat exchanger modules has continued well. In 2008 the company focussed upon the tube drawing, machining, forming and brazing in preparation for the acquisition of a prototype production facility for heat exchanger components. A major technical issue is the manipulation of tubing with very small bore and walls only a few tens of microns thick, as commercial tube benders capable of handling this tube are unavailable. Reaction Engines has been developing this technology for the SABRE pre-cooler for 7 years with private funding. Recently this work has been applied to the LAPCAT project partly supported by EU funding.

Preliminary studies have begun to develop a larger version of the SKYLON design. SKYLON D1 will be capable of carrying a 25% larger payload into orbit than the current design. It will also be approximately 340 tonnes in weight at take-off compared with the current 275 tonnes.

The company has also undertaken extensive studies on future Space infrastructure projects including work on an Orbital Base Station (OBS) and an Orbit Transfer Vehicle (OTV). A facility such as the OBS is essential as a stepping-stone for much larger space missions. An example study, previously carried out by Reaction Engines Ltd for a future crewed Mars mission (Project Troy), was used as the initial starting point for the OBS. However, the design remains flexible and can be easily adapted to accommodate a range of mission requirements.

SKYLON is edging closer and closer to realisation thanks to not only its highly committed and believing investors, but also the British government. In February 2009, Reaction Engines Ltd received a €1m grant from the European Space Agency (ESA) via the British National Space Centre (BNSC) to investigate and validate its pre-cooler development for SKYLON. Reaction Engines Ltd works in close collaboration with UK institutions, such as University of Bristol and Airborne Engineering, but also with our European counterparts, predominantly Germany.

EADS Astrium in Ottobrunn and DLR Institute of Space Propulsion in Lampoldshausen are both using their expertise to work alongside Reaction Engines Ltd and investigate aspects of the pre-cooler including the combustion chamber technology of the SABRE Engine.

The Technology Demonstration Programme will last approximately 2.5 years and will benefit from another €1m from ESA at the halfway point of the programme. This programme will take Reaction Engines Ltd from a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of 2/3 up to 4/5. It is a very exciting time for the company and its innovative spaceplane. The company is relishing the opportunity to demonstrate its concepts and findings. SKYLON’s first flight is planned for 2018 with its entry to service expected to take place in 2020.

For further information on Reaction Engines Ltd and its projects, please check out the website: .