December 11, 2015
The Concorde jet may have been retired, but it is far from mankind’s last crack at hypersonic passenger jets.
Meet SABRE, which stands for Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine. The air-breathing engine will enable aircraft to operate easily at speeds of up to five times the speed of sound and even fly into Earth orbit. Though the SABRE engine was shelved by the British government in the late 1980s when it cut off funding, it is now quickly becoming a reality. Reaction Engines, the UK-based engineering firm which developed the engine, is getting significant investment dollars. British firm BAE Systems, which is set to own 20% of the company, says a new generation of hypersonic jets utilizing the engine could be available as a space vehicle in as little as 10 years. The engine also has renewed financial backing from the British government and from the European Space Agency (ESA).
At least one aircraft is set for a 2020 test flight. It can deliver up to 33,000 pounds into orbit.
Mark Thomas, Reaction Engine’s managing director, says the engine could enable a reusable space plane that takes off and lands like a standard aircraft. Traveling at up to five times the speed of sound in Earth’s atmosphere and twenty-five times the speed of sound (orbital velocity) in space, SABRE transitions into rocket mode.
One of the most important advancements, Thomas says, is the engine’s ability to breathe air, which sets it apart from other rocket engines. This allows it to avoid carrying as much heavy liquid oxygen on board the aircraft, extending speed and range. The advanced heat exchanger cools down air by over a thousand degrees in a hundredth of a second. This is essential since the air in front of the engine at hypersonic speeds can reach over 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.
If the idea of reusable space vehicles that take off and land horizontally doesn’t excite you (it should!), perhaps the dream of a less than two-hour flight from New York to London might.
With aircraft that can travel around the Earth in under four hours, the world is about to become significantly smaller.