Here’s a story that surfaces every few years and has done for decades. It is the spaceplane, the vehicle that takes off from a runway and flies into orbit using engines that breathe atmospheric oxygen for part of the way, and then turn to using an on-board oxidant when the air outside becomes too thin. Always the story is the same: the plane will make transcontinental travel rapid enough to do the UK-Australia trip in far less time than it takes to fly across the Atlantic these days. In the 1980s it was Hotol, the unmanned vehicle that could freight cargo into space, taking off and landing from conventional runways. Then hopes were invested in scramjet technology. The story in the UK always ended the same way: there was insufficient money to develop it, so it died.
This time there is a significant difference. The new version is Skylon, powered by the revolutionary air-breathing SABRE engine. Developed by Reaction Engines, it will power a hypersonic transcontinental craft and an orbit-capable vehicle. The difference is that minister David Willetts has promised £60m of government funding to get the project ff the ground (literally). Given that, the thing might actually fly. And about time, too, given the wait.
The press suggests it as a competitor to Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital hops, but it is in fact in a different league. This one is slated to reach 19,000 mph and take people into orbit. Burt Rutan’s SpaceShip2 is dropped from a heavy lifting aircraft and uses rocket power to just reach the 100km frontier of space and give its passengers a few minutes of weightlessness. Not the same.
Filed under: Updates |