Tourists could fly from Britain to Australia in just four hours by the 2030s with a new hypersonic engine being developed by UK scientists, the head of the UK Space Agency has said.
Reaction Engines, who are based in Oxfordshire, are in the process of building a hybrid hydrogen air-breathing rocket that will allow a plane to fly at Mach 5.4 – more than twice the speed of Concorde – then speed up to to Mach 25 in space.
Not only would the new ‘Sabre’ engine allow speedier journeys – with a flight between London and New York slashed to just over an hour – but the hydrogen/oxygen engine would be far greener and cheaper than current air travel.
The team is currently trialling parts of the engine in Denver, Colorado, and is hopeful to begin test flights in the mid 2020s, before commercial flights in the 2030s.
The government has already invested £60 million in the engine, which has been matched by Rolls Royce, BAE Systems, and Boeing.
On Tuesday Britain agreed to work more closely with Australia in a ‘space bridge’ partnership and Graham Turnock, the CEO of the UK Space Agency, said that it was appropriate the two countries were moving closer together just as technology was speeding up journey times.
“I really like the concrete sense of a bridge linking us, and when we have brought the Sabre rocket engine to fruition, that may in a sense be the manifestation of that space bridge, enabling us to get to Australia in perhaps as little as four hours,” said Mr Turnock.
“Once you’ve got hypersonic engines operating then that kind of journey time is achievable.
“This is technology that could definitely deliver that. We’re talking the 2030s for operational service, and the work is already very advanced.”
Supersonic commercial flight – faster than the speed of sound – has not been available since Concorde was scrapped in 2003 following a catastrophic crash in 2000 in which 109 people died.
Hypersonic – which is five times the speed of sound – is even harder to achieve because travelling so fast causes the engine to melt. Fighter jets achieve it through a complex cooling system but their engines are large, expensive and inefficient.
The new Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine (Sabre) – works by chilling the incoming air from 1800F (1000C) to zero using tiny tubes of super-cooled helium. The captured heat is also used to power the engine.
The hybrid engine allows a spaceplane to take off horizontally and reach speeds of Mac 5.4 – 4,000 mph for fast commercial travel, and also switch to rocket mode, allowing for space travel at Mach 25 (19,000mph).
As well as aerospace, the new engines could be used in the automotive industry and motorsport, or for energy production.
Speaking at the UK Space Conference, in Newport, Shaun Driscoll, of Reaction Engines, said: “The main thing with Sabre is it’s like a hybrid of a rocket engine and an aero engine, so it allows a rocket to breathe air.
“Most rockets are vertically launched, and if you look at spacecraft you have a tiny satellite at the top and a huge massive rocket, because just carrying fuel means you need more fuel so it’s a horrible cycle.
“Rockets really haven’t progressed in 70 years, whereas aero engines have become very efficient, so if you can combine an aero engine and a rocket you can have a very lightweight efficient propulsion system and basically create a space plane.
“The challenge of going very fast to escape the atmosphere you have to go hypersonic, and you generate a lot of heat travelling fast. Our pre-cooler takes air that arrives at 1,000 degrees centigrade and cools it down to zero in one twentieth of a second in something you can get your arms around.
“The physics checks out but the challenge is building a test regime.”
Will Whitehorn, the incoming President of UK Space, the umbrella group for the space industry, said the engine was crucial for cutting journey times and building infrastructure in space.
If you can find a way to act like a jet engine in the atmosphere and a rocket engine in space then you have cracked one of the big conundrums of space launch.
“Concorde had to use a conventional engine. The point of the reaction engine it can switch from one that feeds on oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere to one that doesn’t require the feeding of oxygen, but that technology is the technology that would revolutionise space launch.
“It would not only allow you to fly around the world hypersonically, and take people from London to Australia outside the atmosphere and have far less long term effect on the atmosphere but it will also allow you to rapidly get much more technology into space.”