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UK project brings us a step closer to ultra high-speed air travel - along with simpler satellite deployment | Toronto Star

By Scott Simmie World Affairs

You board an aircraft in Toronto or Vancouver. It's got weird-looking engines and much smaller wings than you'd expect. There are no windows. You step off a few hours later - in Australia.

The thrust of this story, and of that aircraft, is a completely new type of engine being developed by a firm called Reaction Engines in the UK. Such engines, on the right fuselage, would be capable of carrying passengers at five times the speed of sound. A derivative of those engines, capable of also operating in a rocket mode, could carry a vehicle - and satellite - into low earth orbit.

This is science, not fiction. And at the recent Farnborough International Airshow, one of the largest aerospace trade gatherings in the world, Reaction Engines was getting a lot of attention.

"These engines are a step change in propulsion technology," said managing director and chief engineer Alan Bond, in an interview with The Star. "So at a stroke, they make Mach 5 transport anywhere on the earth, for example, a possibility."

But how?

Reaction Engines is exploring a couple of different types of engines - one for supersonic passenger flights and another for satellite delivery. But they both share a common feature: they have a sophisticated pre-cooler that can take very hot air and nearly instantaneously make it very cold.

A cutaway view of the SABRE engine. One of its main features is a pre-cooler heat exchanger, which allows it to instantly make very hot air very cold.(Image courtesy of Reaction Engines)

"When you're flying at Mach 5, the air's going to get very's going up to 1000 degrees centigrade," explained Bond, who is a rocket scientist. "Before you can put that into an engine you have to cool it. Liquid hydrogen is an extremely good coolant, so we use that in a complex way to cool the air, then compress it to put it into the engines."

Bond says that in a nuclear power station, for example, a heat exchanger with similar capacity would be a 200-ton component. In the SABRE engine it's a 1.5 ton component - which is a breakthrough. It's all pretty heady stuff, but Bond does a great job of explaining the basics in this video - which also gives you a look at their testing.

Before you get too excited about all this and postpone any upcoming trans-global flights, it's worth noting that Reaction Engines is focussing most of its current energy on the development of an engine capable of flying into space. Its proposed Skylon craft would carry payloads of up to 15 tons into low-earth orbit, meaning it could carry most satellites currently transported to space. It would use that pre-cooler, but would also have rockets for part of the flight. Unlike the old Space Shuttle, it would have a runway takeoff and carry all of its fuel - rather than carrying up and jettisoning an external tank.

Reaction Engines will likely get that up and running before turning its attention to your next trip.

The proposed design of the Skylon vehicle, by Reaction Engines. This unmanned aircraft could carry large payloads into low-earth orbit, land on a runway, and then do it all over again.(The Skylon craft)

"This is the only engine that we know of which is capable of realizing an aeroplane which can take off, fly into space, do a job, and come back and land. Then, a couple of days later do it all over again to a different orbit or whatever," says Bond. "So that's the excitement of it."

The other excitement is this: Reaction Engines has been around since 1989, and has been actively building and testing. That radically efficient pre-cooler device took about 10 years of research to develop and they now know it works. So this is not one of those projects that exist solely in imagination and computer graphics. Design of the actual SABRE engine is underway and Reaction Engines is expanding.

And so, too, are the possibilites.

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