Monday, 20 June 2011

Skylon spaceplane: what is NASA waiting for?

When NASA landed men on the moon it was an exciting moment in man’s history, one that many thought would never happen and since then the deniers have convinced themselves that it did not in fact happen – it was all a conspiracy to deceive us, all six Apollo landings, each one fully reported by the western and Soviet media, all the samples of moon rock distributed to labs throughout the world, all the interviews with the astronauts and the books written by them.

The Apollo programme was superseded by the International Space Station and Space Shuttle missions.  NASA is now retiring its Space Shuttle in search of a cheaper way of launching crews into orbit.

Once they can launch payloads at a much lower cost it will be possible to build larger structures in orbit, such as interplanetary ships able ot carry manned expeditions to Mars. This type of craft can’t be built on the Earth’s surface because it would have to undergo the rigours of take off and reentry, and be too heavy to transport into orbit against the Earth’s gravity.

The main barrier to reducing payload costs (dollars per pound lifted into orbit) is the large amount of fuel needed during take off. This fuel has to be carried and this is self-defeating because the more fuel carried the greater the load and the larger the energy needed to lift it against the Earth’s gravity.

 Several companies have been bidding for contracts with NASA to provide a cheaper freight service to orbit. SpaceX, for instance, has won a contract to replace the Space Shuttle with a Falccon 9 launcher and Dragon spacecraft.  Yet one system , it seems to me, stands out above all other competitors: the Skylon Spaceplane. It is being developed by Reaction Engines, a small company near Oxford in the UK, and unfortunately, for reasons beyond me, does not seem to be involved in the bidding and I rarely hear it mentioned in the media.

Initially it would be a cheap way of launching satellites but could be scaled up to take people into orbit and back, as well as transport people between runways anywhere on the planet in less than 4 hours. The Skylon would take-off and land on a runway. It is based on an exclusive propulsion technology called SABRE (Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine). This allows the Skylon to get into orbit with far less liquid oxygen on board. It extracts the oxygen it needs from the atmosphere and mixes it with an on-board supply of liquid hydrogen to generate the explosive energy needed for thrust. A small amount of liquid oxygen would have to be carried for use above 15 miles high, since the air is too thin beyond that height.

It recently passed a thorough technical review by the UK Space Agency. All that  is needed now is investment money. If NASA or large private corporations in the USA were to adopt this in a big way, contracting much of the work to the UK’s space industry (already big and expanding fast) the prospect for manned journeys to Mars, asteroid mining and many other enterpises would be transformed. It would also provide jobs for the western world and an impetus for technological evolution.

If humanity is to continue growing and developing without destroying our planet or destroying itself by internecine conflict over resources, it needs to expand  into the rest of the universe. 

Update on 10 June 2012.
I have just learned that the SABRE air-breathing hydrogen-burning engine (see pre-cooler below) is being tested around now and if the tests go well it will be demonstrated and publicised at the Farnborough air show in the UK.

 Even if they don't go well the technology is already on its way to being fully proven. How long before big money and a sense of urgency are forthcoming?
added in August 2012
Author, 2077 AD