Since the beginning of mankind’s exploration and use of space, launching spacecraft into orbit has been one of the most exciting, expensive and dangerous elements of any space programme. Even today, 50 years on from Apollo, the world is largely dependent on throwaway, multi-stage rockets that drive up the costs of launch and the space services and science they enable. Occasional launch failures can destroy payloads worth many millions and set back the fortunes of commercial companies and space-faring nations alike.
In the US, companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have paved the way into partially reusable conventional rockets that will cut some of the costs. The return of a Falcon 9 lower stage to its base launch pad is compulsive viewing. It is only a truly reusable vehicle, however, that offers the order of magnitude reduction in costs so sought after by companies and nations looking to access space.
A new generation of space planes can carry large payloads into space and return as a scheduled flight. They will dramatically reduce costs and risk for customers, much as scheduled freight flights have done around the world. Britain is on the brink of becoming the technology leader in this area.
Headquartered at the Culham Science Centre in Oxfordshire, Reaction Engines Limited (REL) is a British company of around 200 people at the forefront of innovation, and is one of the UK’s fastest growing private engineering and technology companies. The company’s unique Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE) concept is game changing.
SABRE engines are unique in delivering the fuel efficiency of a jet engine, combined with the power and high-speed ability of a rocket. It is a new class of propulsion that eliminates the boundary between atmospheric and space operations for commercial and defence needs. Unlike jet engines, which are only capable of powering a vehicle up to three times the speed of sound (Mach 3), SABRE engines are capable of accelerating from zero to hypersonic speeds (Mach 5+) in air-breathing mode. In rocket mode, speeds of Mach 25 needed to access space are possible, with SABRE combining the best technology from both types of engine.
A £60m commitment by the UK Government in December 2015 has catalysed additional private investment of more than £50m to support Reaction Engines’ growth and transition from pioneering research into design and demonstration.
Successful delivery of SABRE programme development and testing milestones, overseen by the European Space Agency, have generated the confidence to attract further investment. Boeing’s HorizonX venture fund, Rolls-Royce, Ballie-Gifford and Woodford Asset Management joined in a second funding round in April 2018, and Reaction Engine’s technology has generated interest with government agencies and industry worldwide.
This support is funding a full-scale ground test of our pre-cooler heat exchanger technology that unlocks hypersonic flight. Reaction Engines’ pre-cooler heat exchangers encompass world-leading technology. They are able to cool air coming into the engine at hypersonic speeds from 1,000 degrees Celsius to ambient temperatures in one twentieth of a second. This will be followed by a 2020 demonstration of the SABRE core engine at a new rocket engine test facility now under construction in Westcott, Buckinghamshire.
The first demonstration stage is designed to separately test the SABRE pre-cooler and core engine technologies, and is due to begin around Q2 2019 and 2020 respectively. The next stage of development will see testing and evaluation of a high-speed experimental aircraft to demonstrate the in-flight capability of key SABRE technologies, in particular the pre-cooler and nacelle systems. This will provide an incredible opportunity for further collaboration on a cutting edge, novel and fast-paced programme within the UK space and aerospace clusters, as well as further developing long-term international partnerships.
Reaction Engines’ technology also has applications in other sectors wherever there is a thermal management challenge, from aerospace and motorsport, to battery cooling and small satellite thermal control. The Applied Technologies team are currently working on prototyping and delivering a new breed of high performance lightweight heat exchangers across a variety of industries, evolved from the ground breaking pre-cooler technology and manufacturing expertise developed for the SABRE engine.
Through its apprenticeship and graduate programmes, Reaction Engines is also creating high value jobs in response to emerging industrial challenges across a variety of key sectors. Reaction Engines has a young and diverse workforce, with talent from across the economy from motorsport to the video gaming industry, and have just launched their latest graduate and apprentice intakes.
The prize is much larger than leadership in space. An engine used to power a hypersonic aircraft or space plane will revolutionise military and commercial aerospace. Commercial flights that can connect London to Australia, Asia or the US in less than two or three hours will become the strategic goal of airlines in the future. For these reasons, it is important to sustain UK leadership in this propulsion technology as other nations around the world seek to acquire and exploit it. As it has done so in the past, the UK is pioneering the next phase of aerospace propulsion, and Reaction Engines is excited to be a key part of it.
For more information on Reaction Engines or to keep up to date on their progress, visit their website at www.reactionengines.co.uk/
Whilst every reasonable effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information supplied herein, Quilter Cheviot cannot be held responsible for any inaccuracies, errors or omissions. This article is for general information purposes only, it is not investment research and it is not a personal recommendation or a solicitation to engage in investment activity.