Skylon is an elongated trapezoidal space-plane that will be able to take off and land like a conventional plane using only its internal fuel, whilst still carrying a significant payload to the International Space Station.
Many have said that one of the biggest issues our species will face in the future is how we will free ourselves from our dependency on the planet, and establish ourselves as a space-faring species. But why do we really need to do this? For one thing, we do have all our eggs in one basket. Humankind are dangerously vulnerable to extinction level events such as asteroid impacts and pandemics. It may be that the faster we get ourselves off planet, with sustaining colonies in orbit, and on other celestial bodies, the better it could be for all of us. At the same time, what we learn and invent whilst we undertake this awesome project, will help us develop the technologies and mindsets to keep our own planet in better order for current and future generations.
So what is stopping us? Currently, it is more of an issue of cost than technology. After all, we landed men on the moon a few decades ago, using what is now considered relatively primitive 1960’s technology. However, the huge cost of developing safe launch systems in these risk adverse and ‘short return on investment’ days, works against these types of large-scale projects. For one thing, you can forget about governments funding these types of projects right now – the five-year voting event horizon plays into the hands of political parties vying to cut costs and reduce expenditure of taxpayer monies for such grand scale and long-term projects. The ‘vision thing’ just isn’t there anymore.
Nevertheless all is not lost. Stepping up to the plate are a new wave of digital era entrepreneurs, such as Sir Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk with SpaceX. But even with these there are problems attempting to reduce the cost involved in getting into orbit. Virgin lost the VSS Enterprise space-plane in October 2014 when it broke up over the Mojave Desert and SpaceX lost a Falcon 9 launcher in June 2015 when it exploded after launch. Their investigations are still ongoing. Hopefully, once the reasons for these failures have been rectified, things will be back on track again. But all of these systems rely on placing payloads, sometimes human ones, on top of what are essentially gigantic fireworks. Pure rocket engines or ‘Big Dumb Boosters’ (as they are known of in the trade) are difficult to control safely. If rocket engines can be made easier to control, use less propellant and be reusable, then both safely and cost will become a more reasonable goal and may one day allow regular Low Earth Orbit (LEO) operations to become a daily reality.
At this point in the story comes Alan Bond and his company Reaction Engines Limited. They are developing the hybrid SABRE precooled, air-breathing rocket engine, which will power a single stage to orbit launch system known of as Skylon. This has evolved from a project stretching allk the way back to the 1980’s, when British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce took up Alan Bonds original HOTOL space-plane concept. Unfortunately, aerodynamic stability problems saw the project shelved and the government ultimately withdrew investment.
But now Alan Bond is back. After time wrestling with patent legislation and the Official Secrets Act under which his original designs languished for several decades, he’s now back working on the child of HOTOL known as Skylon.
Skylon is an elongated trapezoidal space-plane with canards at the front, no tailplane and SABRE engines (Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine) at the tips of short stubby wings. It is projected that using the unique precooled SABRE engines, Skylon will be able to take off and land much as a conventional plane and will achieve LEO with only its internal fuel, whilst still carrying a significant payload. If funding can be found, flight-testing could begin as early as 2019, with Skylon delivering 15 tonnes of payload on a regular basis to the International Space Station by 2022.
In the absence of the Space Elevator (to be the feature of another article) Skylon seems to be a good bet to finally deliver on the promise of a regularly scheduled, and relatively low cost LEO deliver system. Now it’s down to who will fund the development? How about a massive scale Crowdfunder…?
For further information:
Reaction Engines Limited Website: http://www.reactionengines.co.uk/
The Skylon Wiki page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skylon_%28spacecraft%29
The Three Rocketeers BBC Four Documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjC_e3acgqQ