Jul 27, 2012
Entrepreneurs, engineers of the 21st century seeking to revolutionise access to spaceBack
Engineering|Africa|Aircraft|Compressor|Design|Engines|Lockheed Martin|Orbital|Pipes|Reaction Engines|Sabre|Technology|Africa|Britain|South Africa|United Kingdom|United States|GBP|Sabre Power Plant|Carrier Aircraft|Pipes|Precooler Module Containing Networks|Satellite Launch Services|Services|Power|Richard Branson|Operations|Skylon|Synergetic Airbreathing Rocket Engine|ESA
© Reuse this
This is not a new concept. US company Orbital has been successfully launching small satellites in its Pegasus rocket, dropped from a converted Lockheed Martin Tristar airliner, for 22 years now.
An even more radical approach is under development in the UK. There, a company called Reaction Engines has been developing its Synergetic Airbreathing Rocket Engine, better known as Sabre, for the past 20 years. This engine would power a spaceplane, which would take off from, and land on, runways like a conventional aircraft.
For takeoff and flight through the lower atmosphere, the Sabre power plant would ingest air and burn the oxygen within that air with liquid hydrogen fuel in the rocket combustion chamber. Once the air becomes too thin to use, the engine would switch to on-board liquid hydrogen. (So the Sabre is a composite jet engine/rocket engine design.) This would reduce the amount of on-board liquid hydrogen needed to launch the craft into orbit by more than 250 t!
The need for extra stages, jettisoned after the fuel has been exhausted, would be eliminated, making the single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane concept practical. Reaction Engines is developing a design for such a spaceplane, which it calls the Skylon. This would be an unmanned craft, capable of lifting 12 t or more of payload into orbit. The European Space Agency (ESA) has con- cluded that, provided the Sabre can be successfully developed, the Skylon concept is practical using today’s technology.
The problem with the Sabre pro- gramme is that it has to overcome huge technological problems. The spaceplane will hit high speeds in the lower atmosphere, with the result that as the air enters the engine intake and is compressed, its temperature will soar to 1 000º C, which would melt the intake and engine. So the air has to be cooled very fast and very deeply before it can enter the compressor. This is done by using a precooler. However, previous precooler designs tended to freeze out the moisture in the air, covering the precooler with a layer of frost and disrupting its operation.
Reaction Engines has developed a precooler module containing networks of very fine pipes which circulate liquid helium. This should drop the temperature of the incoming air to –140º C in just 0.01 seconds! This precooler is now being tested, with some 66% of the programme now concluded. So far, the company reports things are going well. Progress is being monitored and audited by the ESA, at the request of the UK Space Agency. (The ESA has experts in propulsion engineering and technologies, which the UK agency does not.)
Now, Pegasus and Launcher- One can transform the small satellite launch sector, while Sabre/Skylon can completely revolutionise earth-to-orbit operations. Interestingly, both Orbital and Virgin Galactic are entirely private-sector operations. Reaction Engines is also a private-sector company, and only 15% of its funding has come from the UK government – the balance has come from private investors.
Should the precooler pass all its tests, it is quite likely that the British government will provide more funding to further develop the engine – but, again, the bulk will have to come from private sources. Perhaps, more importantly, the British authorities are already working to develop the regulations necessary to allow the operation of spaceplanes in both UK and European airspace.
Britain’s civil space budget is some £300-million but the British civil space industry has brought £9.1-billion into the UK economy since 2010. The global recession has had no discernible impact on the country’s space industry. The UK’s approach to the space industry is for the State to make investments in strategic technology development programmes being undertaken by the country’s space companies (whether locally owned or local subsidiaries of multinational aerospace corporations) to stimulate the development of new technologies. Once the technology is proven, the private sector commercialises and markets it.
Thus, recent State investments worth £40-million stimulated private investments of more than £500-million in the British space industry. To give a specific exam- ple, the UK is giving Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (a British subsidiary of EADS Astrium) £21-million to develop and launch the first of a new design of small radar satellites, called NovoSAR. (The payload will be provided by Astrium UK.) This will open a whole new market for the company, which will be able to provide radar satellites to countries that could not previously acquire this technology.
Americans talk a lot about getting the private sector into space, but it is the British who have been doing it. The ESA is now adopting the British model. Perhaps South Africa should consider doing the same?
Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu© Reuse this Comment Guidelines (150 word limit)
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor
Other Keith Campbell News
Updated 4 hours ago This month, November 2015, marks the centenary of the unveiling of his General Theory of Relativity by Albert Einstein. He did so in four short papers published in the Proceedings of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin, while the First World War engulfed most...
Recent Research Reports
Water 2015: A review of South Africa's water sector (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Water 2015 Report considers the aforementioned issues, not only in the South African context but also in the African and global context in terms of supply and demand, water stress and insecurity, and access to water and sanitation, besides others.
Input Sector Review: Pumps 2015 (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s 2015 Input Sector Review on Pumps provides an overview of South Africa’s pumps industry with particular focus on pump manufacture and supply, aftermarket services, marketing strategies, local and export demand, imports, sector support, investment...
Liquid Fuels 2015: A review of South Africa's liquid fuels sector (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Liquid Fuels 2015 Report examines these issues in the context of South Africa’s business environment; oil and gas exploration; fuel pricing; the development of the country’s biofuels industry; the logistics of transporting liquid fuels; and...
Road and Rail 2015: A review of South Africa's road and rail sectors (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Road and Rail 2015 report examines South Africa’s road and rail transport system, with particular focus on the size and state of the country’s road and rail infrastructure and network, the funding and maintenance of these respective networks, and...
Defence 2015: A review of South Africa's defence sector (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Coal 2015 report examines South Africa’s coal industry with regards to the business environment, the key participants in the sector, local demand, export sales and coal logistics, projects being undertaken by the large and smaller participants in the...
Real Economy Year Book 2015 (PDF Report)
There are very few beacons of hope on South Africa’s economic horizon. Economic growth is weak, unemployment is rising, electricity supply is insufficient to meet demand and/or spur growth, with poor prospects for many of the commodities mined and exported. However,...
This Week's Magazine
Updated 4 hours ago The BMW Group will invest R6-billion at BMW Group South Africa’s (BMW SA’s) Rosslyn plant to produce the next-generation X3 sports-activity vehicle (SAV) for the local and export markets. Rosslyn will continue production of the current 3 Series through its lifecycle,...
Updated 4 hours ago The lack of consequences for poor performance and transgressions on the part of contractors remains a significant hurdle to tackling South Africa’s service delivery challenges, delegates heard at the Consulting Engineers South Africa Infrastructure Indaba, on...
Updated 4 hours ago City of Ekurhuleni executive mayor Mondli Gungubele earlier this month officially named the city’s bus rapid transit (BRT) system, Harambee.
Updated 4 hours ago About 58% of unstructured data stored by companies is dark data, which means that the value or regulatory importance of the data has not been determined. Subsequently, most of the stored data add costs, rather than increasing revenue or reduce regulatory risks, says...
Updated 4 hours ago Effective logistics, import/export and manufacturing consulting services require detailed industry knowledge and experience, but can add significant value to these industries by providing expert advice on various technical elements in their value chains, says...
Next ArticleSA’s economic leadership of Africa slipping away