Space plane ‘could soon fly passengers from London to New York in an hour’

Rob Waugh
The engine could blast passengers from London to New York in an hour (Reaction Engines)

A revolutionary ‘air breathing’ space plane could one day blast passengers from London to New York in less than an hour, after it passed a key hurdle this week.

Researchers at British firm Reaction Engines (REL) made a ‘pre-cooler’ work at a simulated speed of 2,500mph.

The craft uses a revolutionary ‘air breathing’ engine which can blast passengers – or cargo – into space in just 15 minutes, but which relies on cooling super-hot air very rapidly.

REL CEO Mark Thomas said, ‘We’re now able to prove many of the claims we’ve been making as a business, backed up by very high-quality data.

‘In this most recent experiment, we’ve near-instantaneously transferred 1.5 Megawatts of heat energy – the equivalent of 1,000 homes’ worth of heat energy.’

Tests were carried out at a facility at the Colorado Air and Space Port in the US.

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The Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine (Sabre) relies on a ‘pre-cooler’ which allows air to enter the engine without melting it.

Instead of huge multi-stage rockets, a relatively light plane will take off from a conventional runway and reach space in a single journey without a pilot.The engine could also make possible passenger flights from London to Australia in just over four hours – and drive airliners with twice the speed of Concorde.

The SABRE engine is made by a small UK company, REL, which has been perfecting the technology for 20 years – and whose founder believes that it could transform our world into ‘something out of science fiction’.

Before it blasts into space, the engine ‘breathes’ air, like a normal jet – but has to compress the oxygen to 140 atmospheres to burn it along with the hydrogen fuel it carries.

At that point, it’s hot enough to melt ‘all known materials,’ Reaction Engines says.

The key is a pre-cooler heat-exchanger, which cools the air until it’s almost a liquid before it is burned, using a network of pipes. The machine weighs 1,250kg – and has already been successfully tested using a Viper jet engine in 2012, cooling the Viper’s exhaust to cryogenic temperatures.

It’s a breakthrough which allows the plane to ditch 150 tonnes in weight, when compared to the ‘disposable’ rockets previously used to put people into space – such as NASA’s Saturn V.
It could cut the costs of getting into orbit by 90%, its makers believe.

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