Thursday, 9 August 2012

Skylon: a gift to a venture capitalist? (Updated 17 Sept)

{Since writing the following I have learnt about a BBC 4 TV programme, The Three Rocketeers, shown earlier in September. I was on holiday at the time but have since seen a recording.

The technology is even more advanced than I thought. The latest SABRE engine tests went extremely well and all that is needed is for aeronautical engineers to implement the body design and launch infrastructure. Hopefully this TV exposure will attract some attention by someone with access to money. About one half of one month's quantitative easing budget currently allocated by the Federal Reserve in the USA would be enough to put this spaceplane into orbit.

As Alan Bond said, there can now be no doubt that this concept is viable and it is lack of capital plus a paucity of entrepreneurial vision which is holding up a technology which, without exaggeration, has the potential to truly open up the space frontier to private explorers and entrepreneurs alike. As a UK citizen I would of course like to see this home grown technology realise its potential in the UK, creating 70,000 jobs in  stagnant economy, but if the vision and investment continue to be as elusive as in the past  then  the  European Space Agency or NASA or a business consortium must surely take it on. }

There is a new concept of engine, SABRE, already at an advanced stage of development, waiting to be further developed and incorporated first in a Mach 4.5 aircraft, then in a Mach 25 spaceplane called Skylon which would take off  from and land on a runway. It should make possible the launching of a payload into orbit at as low as 1/100th the present cost. (Mach 1 = the speed of sound.)

To quote the UK Minister of Science David Willets,  it ‘is a potential game-changer’ and was the lead story in Spaceflight, August 2012: Skylon takes another step forward by Nick Spall.

ESA is also interested – not surprisingly since this is probably orders of magnitude ahead of anything being considered by NASA, or Virgin Galactic, or Space X or any contractors or partners of those companies, or the space agency of any other country.

SABRE is a combined cycle air breathing rocket engine taking shape at the labs of Reaction Engines Limited in Culham, Oxfordshire. It was exhibited at the Farnborough International Air Show in July 2012 where it was announced that its critically important and revolutionary helium-filled fine-tubed pre-cooler had been successfully tested. This is designed to cool incoming air during high speed flight from 1000 deg C to minus 150 deg C in 0.01 sec. The pre-cooler design can operate at sub-zero temperatures without frosting.

By incorporating this heat exchanger into a rocket engine it is possible to dispense with a large amount of on-board fuel by breathing in oxygen from the atmosphere and combining this with on-board hydrogen. Used in an aircraft the SABRE would bring any point on the planet to within 4 hours. Used in the Skylon it would dramatically reduce ground-to-orbit costs by a factor of 100.  

The next step is to construct and launch the Nacelle Test Vehicle, possibly from Aberporth on the coast of mid-Wales, and public money is likely to be provided; but the full development of Skylon would cost £10 billion and employ 70,000 people.  Recently, I learned about the asteroid mining venture, Planetary Resources Inc., set up by Larry Page of Google and James Cameron. A Skylon spaceplane would enormously increase the profitability of this venture. This concept has been around for a few years now but, I believe, is dogged by politics, bureaucracy and lack of vision of UK investors.

So if you are a rich venture capitalist with vision and a sense of adventure you may like to get involved with this technology and do humankind a service by investing in a giant leap into the rest of the universe with the prospect of a good return, while at the same time taking our minds off internecine, soul-destroying conflict on this precious planet.

The director of REL is Alan Bond. I have no inside information or contacts but the bottom of the  management page of REL has a 'contact us' option.


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