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United Kingdom Space The Almighty Buck Technology

British Spaceplane Skylon Could Revolutionize Space Travel (ieee.org) 226

MarkWhittington writes: The problem of lowering the cost of sending people and cargo into low Earth orbit has vexed engineers since the dawn of the space age. Currently, the only way to go into space is on top of multistage rockets which toss off pieces of themselves as they ascend higher into the heavens. The Conversation touted a British project, called Skylon, which many believe will help to address the problem of costly space travel. According to IEEE Spectrum, both BAE Systems and the British government have infused Skylon with $120 million in investment.
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British Spaceplane Skylon Could Revolutionize Space Travel

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  • When I see "could" in a headline, I add "but it probably won't/doesn't" to the end.

    I think fundamentally this is closely related to Betteridge's law.

    • by turkeydance ( 1266624 ) on Sunday November 08, 2015 @07:26PM (#50889843)
      "could" and "might" and "?" are standards in the click-bait tackle box.
      • And quotation marks:

        Headline: "British spaceplane will revolutionize space travel"
        Intro: Some obviously biased guy somewhere said his spaceplane will revolutionize space travel.

        Translation: we're terrible 'journalists' who lack the competence, fortitude and integrity to come up with a headline we actually stand by. If not, we'd have written a headline like: British company developing spaceplane.

        We need more than Betteridge's law. We need Betteridge's law book.

    • by thinkwaitfast ( 4150389 ) on Sunday November 08, 2015 @09:28PM (#50890261)
      It could blow up and kill a lot of people. It could fail to make it to orbit and crash into NYC. It could make early investors billions. It could do a lot of things.
      • Actually, blowing up people in an experimental aircraft should be a crime worthy of jail time all up the line, given that we could be blowing up autonomous piloting gear instead.

    • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

      If anyone has studied the history of the UKs aviation and space industry will simply say I will believe it when I see it.
      The modified rule has versions for battery tech or mass storage tech. I will believe it when it ships.

    • by Dereck1701 ( 1922824 ) on Sunday November 08, 2015 @11:25PM (#50890669)

      I believe there is a quote from Arthur C Clark regarding this

      "Every revolutionary idea seems to evoke three stages of reaction. They may be summed up by the phrases: 1- It's completely impossible. 2- It's possible, but it's not worth doing. 3- I said it was a good idea all along."

      That's not to say that one should buy into every idea that someone is trying to peddle, but many of the technologies we take for granted today (aircraft, cars, PCs, engineered lumber, etc) were seen as prohibitively expensive, unnecessary and/or dead ends before they became widespread. Air breathing rocket engines of some sort are very likely to be the future of spaceflight, whether or not Skylon will be that future we will have to see.

      • by KGIII ( 973947 )

        In the scale of things, it wasn't all that odd for the computer that I had in my house, counting all the peripherals, was more costly than my new car in the driveway. I think my first laptop was about $10,000 and had an external tape drive (that had an internal 40 MB HDD IIRC and used proprietary tapes), had a docking station, had an external modem, and I think it had an internal 40 GB drive as well as the ability to use an external monitor.

        The PC on my desk was only slightly less expensive and I think that

  • Stupid article (Score:5, Interesting)

    by BradMajors ( 995624 ) on Sunday November 08, 2015 @07:31PM (#50889847)

    Skylon's idea is to use oxygen from the air, rather than taking the oxygen as fuel for the initial part of the ascent. A well known idea that is being worked on elsewhere.

    • There is a drawback in using atmospheric oxygen. The vehicle must stay low enough to have something to scoop up. Exactly how low is a messy calculus problem and also requires different structures and heat dissipation techniques.

      The two extremes are 1. shoot straight up out of the atmosphere, then straight tangential to the local surface (horizontal) and 2. Stay at sea level until you achieve orbital velocity, then head straight up. The space shuttle accent is closer to (1), popping out of the atmosphere t

      • by tsotha ( 720379 )
        Horizontal takeoff makes this quite a bit cheaper, though, from an engineering perspective. The TWR you need at takeoff is much lower - a 747 has something like a 0.27 TWR, which wouldn't even budge a rocket. Lower TWR means smaller engines, less weight, less drag. It also means less stress on the spacecraft, too, which should keep the wear and tear a bit lower. The plan is to go up to 28 km at mach 5.5 before cutting over to LOX. Assuming they can actually get the performance they expect out of the en
      • by Maritz ( 1829006 )

        Stay at sea level until you achieve orbital velocity, then head straight up.

        Hitting about 8km/s at sea level sounds hazardous to health.

    • Skylon's idea is to use oxygen from the air, rather than taking the oxygen as fuel for the initial part of the ascent.

      Skylon's stupidity is to insist on combining a jet and rocket motor, whereas the jet could be attached to a separate vehicle, flown back independently. Just leave the LN gear in the atmosphere, please.

      • Whoops, I meant liquid helium gear, even worse. Think of all the party balloons that could be harmed.

      • by Burdell ( 228580 )

        Welcome to the 1970 or so plan for the Space Shuttle. A flyback booster was in the original concept, but it didn't pan out. Now, materials engineering and manufacturing processes have improved dramatically since then, so maybe something is feasible today, but I have my doubts.

      • by Maritz ( 1829006 )
        Yeah, they're stupid and you're smart, I get it. If only they'd approached you beforehand you could've saved them millions.
      • by tsotha ( 720379 )
        It's only stupid if they can't pull it off. Having a single engine that can do both is an enormous advantage. Hell, even designing a carrier aircraft to launch non-trivial payloads is an enormous headache. As far as I'm aware, there's one production system that uses an air launch, and its payload to LEO is about half a ton. That's 1/30th the payload REL is planning for Skylon.
    • Oxygen is only a small part of the possible advantage of an air breathing rocket engine. Reaction mass is a much larger advantage. Standard rocket engines have to carry all of their reaction mass. Jets carry only their energy source (fuel) and use the atmosphere and external oxygen as an additional reaction mass. I believe a 747 for example sucks in and expels over 5,000 lbs of air a second. That is why jet engines have such a major advantage over rocket engines in terms of Isp (specific impulse: IE fu

  • Only $240M in funding? Last I checked, REL had specced the program as costing $12,000M.

    This isn't even the first time they've gotten funding. They've gotten about $450M in several previous rounds. Did they pass some milestone to earn more funding or did they just get paid for the sake of not canceling the project? As far as I can tell the only component that's been tested is the intake air precooler.

    • They have specced billions to get to a flying spacecraft that is ready to be sold to vendors. The money they have got gets them to their next step; a ground test of a full engine. At that point they will be able to unlock more funding as the risk will have gone down. This method has got them this far; they secured funding from BAE and the UK government by demonstrating that the key enabling technology - the precooler - works.
  • SpaceX started in 2002; Reaction Engines Ltd started in 1989; SpaceX reached the ISS in 1012. Looks like Reaction Engines Ltd is 21 years behind, unless you count only their Skylon project, in which case it's almost 2 years behind.

    Sorry. I'm massively unimpressed. Build something, already.

    • LOX fueled rocket engines have been flying since 1926.

      You're comparing "Tweak existing technology" with "Invent new technology"

    • SpaceX reached the ISS in 1012.

      Whoa, has Elon built a time machine?

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      SpaceX started in 2002; Reaction Engines Ltd started in 1989; SpaceX reached the ISS in 1012. Looks like Reaction Engines Ltd is 21 years behind

      You're forgetting that in 2024 Reaction Engines will steal SpaceX's time machine and use it to reach the ISS in 997 AD, beating SpaceX by 15 years. That will have, of course, triggered the time race between the two companies, which will have resulted in both going further and further back in time until they accidentally cause a mass extinction on Earth 66 million years ago.

      • If it's just the lawyers, marketing weasels, and lazy reporters that go extinct, I don't think anyone will worry. ;)
    • by EdgePenguin ( 2646733 ) on Sunday November 08, 2015 @08:14PM (#50889979) Homepage
      SpaceX started with a lot of money behind it, the support of NASA, and they are doing something very conventional (multi-stage LOx-Kerosene rockets) albeit better than the competition. Reaction engines are aiming at what they claim (with good reason) to be the biggest advance in propulsion since the jet engine. Snarky crap on slashdot is quick enough to write; R&D takes a long time.
    • by EdgePenguin ( 2646733 ) on Sunday November 08, 2015 @08:26PM (#50890027) Homepage
      They have built something. A precooler that can cool incoming air from 1000C to -150C as it comes into an engine intake at Mach 5, and is light and small enough to fit into an aircraft engine. This is the main part of the vehicle that is a big unknown, and they have shown it works in view of experts from government and industry.
      • by phayes ( 202222 )

        So where is the flight hardware?

        The flying prototype?

        • by Maritz ( 1829006 )

          So where is the flight hardware?

          The flying prototype?

          Parent is replying to a post that said they haven't made anything. "so where is the flight hardware" is a nonsensical response to that post.

          They haven't finished it yet, so it's a waste of time - is that your argument?

          • by phayes ( 202222 )

            tlambert ridiculed the fact that RE is still in the lab/prototype phase after 25 years (note that he never claimed that RE has not built anything, just that their progress in 25 years is massively unimpressive).

            EdgePenguin claimed that having tested a precooler in a lab is some kind of achievement.

            I ask where the flight hardware &/or where the flying prototype is.

            You falsely claim that "Parent is replying to a post that said they haven't made anything" & then misrepresent "no flight hardware" (in 25

    • by quintessencesluglord ( 652360 ) on Sunday November 08, 2015 @11:13PM (#50890617)

      If I remember correctly, Reaction Engines got severely dicked by the UK government (pulling funding declaring the engines covered by the Official Secrets Act), effectively ending private development.

      The design was promising but had teething issues, and has been carried on as a garage project all these years.

      That they've managed to get this far given the hurdles they've had to overcome is nothing short of astounding.

      • by tsotha ( 720379 )

        If I remember correctly, Reaction Engines got severely dicked by the UK government (pulling funding declaring the engines covered by the Official Secrets Act), effectively ending private development.

        That's a BAE/Rolls Royce project called HOTOL, which was co-created by the same designer. After HOTOL was canceled he started REL.

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        Sadly, I don't think £120m is going to get them very far. They will need at least a billion to get this thing into orbit. 120M is just keeping some of the government's friends employed for another few years.

    • by dbIII ( 701233 )

      SpaceX reached the ISS in 1012

      Yes but they had to loop around the sun to do it :)
      More seriously SpaceX is doing mostly what Grumman etc were doing earlier instead of something very different and they have more people as well as better funding than Reaction Engines.

    • you can watch this if you like to see a test engine running and an explanation of the task https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]
    • by Maritz ( 1829006 )
      Pretty different things, shouldn't really have to explain how different and to what extent. It should be really fucking obvious.
  • Not so fast (Score:4, Interesting)

    by tsotha ( 720379 ) on Sunday November 08, 2015 @07:54PM (#50889921)

    But even if you manage to land the booster stage, it’s going to need a very expensive inspection before it can be flown again. Rockets tread a fine line between flying and exploding. It’s hard enough to get them to work just once, let alone tens or maybe hundreds of times.

    Ultimately jet engines are just complex rocket engines that use outside air for the oxidizer. The reason commercial jet engines are more reliable, generally, is they aren't pushed to the very edge of what's possible, performance-wise, and they're produced in large quantities. But neither will be true for the Skylon SABRE engines. I don't see any reason to think they'll be any cheaper to maintain than the Space Shuttle Main Engines.

    • Because Reaction Engines are not NASA and its not the 1970s anymore? You seem to be assuming that SSMEs are the cheapest LH2 engines that could ever be made (wrong - see RS-68, RD-0120 etc.) and that NASAs procedures for turning them around are optimal.
      • by tsotha ( 720379 )

        Reaction Engines are not NASA, true. And as such they don't have any experience taking engines (of any sort) to space and back. And yes, other hydrogen engines have been cheaper. But they weren't designed to be reused, either.

        It's not difficult to imagine an organization that can do things more cheaply than NASA. But just wishing away costs like that isn't going to work. Even assuming they get the damn thing to work at all, I will be shocked if their net $/kg figure is lower than SpaceX's.

        • Re:Not so fast (Score:4, Insightful)

          by EdgePenguin ( 2646733 ) on Sunday November 08, 2015 @08:30PM (#50890047) Homepage
          They have worked out their cost/kg and found it to be lower - and had their sums checked by third parties. I have the feeling this project is largely not being taken seriously because Americans don't pay attention to anything outside their borders (and generally refuse to believe any worthwhile advance comes from outside the US)
          • by tsotha ( 720379 )

            Your feelings aside, I think the reason most people don't take this project seriously is so far all they've actually produced is a pre-cooler.

            • have you checked what that pre-cooler has to do ??? its the new technology part of the project.
              • by tsotha ( 720379 )
                As the AC pointed out above, they're planning to get a mass factor out of the structure that nobody's been able to get in the past.
          • The X-33 was also supposed to dramatically reduce the cost of access to space. People had checked "the sums" Of course the problems started to arise when they actually started building the thing. Suddenly it wasn't as easy to build composite conformal LH2 tanks as they thought and the program went from "the SSTO future of cheap space travel", to a rusting curiosity. For Skylon to work, it requires everything to go just right, if 1 or 2 technologies don't pan out, or turn out to weigh more than originally ex
            • Re:Not so fast (Score:4, Informative)

              by WolfWithoutAClause ( 162946 ) on Monday November 09, 2015 @12:16AM (#50890797) Homepage

              Actually, the Skylon group predicted that the X--33 wouldn't work. They said that the X-33 was too tail heavy. And fixing it would mess up the payload fraction. And they were right.

              It's difficult to get your head around just how far ahead these guys have been for about 20 years.

              The ultimate reason is that they built a computer model of launch vehicles, which they fiddled with until they got a plausible vehicle. Then they did a back-back comparison with a pure-rocket vehicle, and found that there was no big advantage. Then they fiddled around more, and out popped Skylon, and then they found it *seriously* beats pure-rocket vehicles; it's not even close.

              Skylon is looking at costs starting around $500/kg and then going lower. SpaceX won't be able to get down to that.

              • by tsotha ( 720379 )

                Sure, at this stage of any project it's easy to be "looking at" very low costs. They haven't done anything yet. The nature of these kinds of projects is there are a whole bunch of costs, technical an regulatory, that aren't apparent until you actually start building something. The X-33 is actually pretty instructive - like REL, Lockheed Martin tried to pack a whole bunch of new technologies into a single program, and the failure of any of them would doom the program. And no, the X-33 didn't fail because

                • by dave420 ( 699308 )
                  They have done something, though. You stating they haven't doesn't change that.
                • by Maritz ( 1829006 )

                  This thing is going to be a whole lot more expensive than the sums they've penciled out. The only question is how much more.

                  Wow, predicting that a large and complex project will cost more than initially anticipated? You're all about the bold predictions. Now I know you're talking real sense. Go ahead, say they haven't built anything yet again.

        • Actually, their team are were built from battle hardened rocket engineers, who had put stuff into orbit before.

          I've looked at their design, been to lectures by them and asked questions. If it works, I will be absolutely gobsmacked if it isn't cheaper than SpaceX.

    • by _merlin ( 160982 )

      Ultimately jet engines are just complex rocket engines that use outside air for the oxidizer.

      No, more importantly than that they use outside air for the reaction mass, and this is what makes them so much more efficient than a rocket.

  • by Irate Engineer ( 2814313 ) on Sunday November 08, 2015 @08:32PM (#50890053)


    A single engine that can transition from air breathing jet to scramjet to rocket, all the way from runway to orbit and back!


    A single ungodly complex engine that might transition from air breathing jet to scramjet to rocket, all the way from runway to orbit. Or not.

    Cool idea on paper, but I see way too many moving parts over a huge performance envelope for me to believe this will ever be a robust engine. It just seems too complex to be a "fuel-up-and-go" engine. Looks more like a engine that would need to be torn down and inspected after every flight, assuming it works once. But best of luck to them all the same.

    • by EdgePenguin ( 2646733 ) on Sunday November 08, 2015 @08:38PM (#50890075) Homepage

      Wrong on multiple points

      It never becomes a scramjet. Not being a scramjet is in fact the entire point behind the last few decades of research. You can either try to burn fuel in a supersonic flow through your engine (scramjet) or you can slow the flow to subsonic and compress it so the fuel can burn properly (ramjets etc.) - problem is, this compression superheats the air. SABRE dumps the excess heat into the cryogenic hydrogen the vehicle carries so that you can operate an engine at high Mach number without its insides melting.

      As for too many moving parts; they precooler itself does not appear to have any moving parts. It needs a liquid helium cooling loop to connect it to the hydrogen supply, but that isn't overly complex. Everything behind that is well established jet/rocket engine technology. Even if you assume that each precooler + bypass is itself as complicated as enough engine, the spacecraft only has as many "moving parts" as an ordinary rocket with 4 engines. SpaceX happily flies a rocket with 9 engines and will likely be able to reuse its first stage in a cost effective way.

      • by tomhath ( 637240 )

        SpaceX happily flies a rocket with 9 engines and will likely be able to reuse its first stage in a cost effective way.

        I'll believe that when I see it. IMHO air breathing planes will never replace solid fuel boosters to get through the atmosphere.

        • Your opinion is based in ignorance then. Costs cannot come down without re-usability and solid rockets are not reusable. The Shuttle SRBs had reusable casing - which had to be separated into segments, refilled with solid fuel, and then put back to together. Ever see an Airbus A320 get chopped into segments between flights?
          • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Sunday November 08, 2015 @10:22PM (#50890427) Homepage

            I've sometimes pondered the concept of a self-consuming rocket engine - basically infinite-staging.

            Picture a spike (although the ideal shape would be different from an aerospike) comprised of small channels between aluminum - for example, assembled via fine aluminum wires or finely corrugated aluminum sheets, all the way through, thus leaving empty space between them. The wires or sheets would be joined together by having any surface oxide removed (or inhibited altogether by alloying agents), and heated enough in a non-oxidizing environment to braze them together. The channels would be filled with an oxidizer-rich polymer/ammonium perchlorate mixture (very mainstream as far as propellants go).

            The engine would need to be lit off across its entire surface, so all channels ignite (or be designed such that neighboring channels ignite neighbors who fail to ignite).

            The propellant mixture would burn down into the channels (as even fine aluminum wire/sheeting takes time to burn through) - lacking any area within the channels to expand into, it remains compressed and accelerates linearly as it moves through the channel (design parameters set such that the compression ratio achieved is the desired compression ratio for the engine). The angle of the channels would direct the stream largely along the spike, so that the gases expand along an ideal expansion profile for generating forward thrust. Since the entire spike would be comprised of channels, again, the ideal shape would be different form an aerospike; the exhaust gases don't simply come from the top.

            As the oxidizer-rich propellant burns down, it progressively erodes the aluminum making up its channels (again, alloying agents in the aluminum may be used to help or hinder this process). Since the exterior ends of the channels would be exposed to the oxidizer-rich exhaust for the longest, they'd progressively burn down from their ends. Since the exhaust burns further as it flows (and the oxidizer would be more liberated), again the erosive potential of the stream would be highest near the end of the channels. So like a wick keeping pace with a candle as it burns down, the channels would be expected to erode away at approximately the same rate that the propellant burns down.

            Aluminum metal is itself is a very energetic-burning compound - aluminum dust is often included in solid rocket mixes, so the erosion of the aluminum channels is a significant thrust contributor. Lithium-aluminum would be even better - lithium-aluminum is stronger than aluminum, and lithium is even more energetic than aluminum. It would also help neutralize the hydrochloric acid that occurs in most ammonium perchlorate-based solid propellants (although there are other techniques as well, such as burning magnesium and/or sodium nitrate with it).

            In a naive implementation, the spike would change from the ideal shape to a progressively suboptimal shape as it burned down. But the rate of propellant burn and aluminum erosion could be controlled by tweaking the parameters of the system such that the areas of the spike you want to last longer can burn down slower than the areas you want to burn down faster. Hence the ideal spike shape can be retained as the engine burns down, all the way to right before it burns out.

            Basically, your rocket would be... no rocket at all; just propellant. The entire thing is consumed. It'd be useless for orbital maneuvering**, but to get to orbit, the rocket equation likes nothing better than non-stop continuous staging with no tankage or engine mass at all (a caveat in this regard: your gimbaling system and interstage would still have to be sized for when it's at full size and max thrust). No complex systems at all. No exotic manufacturing techniques needed. No exotic, expensive materials. Just aluminum and a not-particularly-unusual solid rocket propellant. Getting the details of the mix right to ensure 1) even ignition, 2) even burndown, and 3) aluminum erosion at the proper rate would take research and experimentation, but I would e

            • This is a hybrid rocket engine.

            • by tsotha ( 720379 )
              Heh. A caseless rocket engine.
      • The spacecraft only has as many "moving parts" as an ordinary rocket with 4 engines. SpaceX happily flies a rocket with 9 engines and will likely be able to reuse its first stage in a cost effective way.

        And you do realize that even these "ordinary rockets" still do explode, even though the basic technology has been around since the 1960s? See Orbital, see the SpaceX Falcon 9 CRS-1 mission. And even some of the simple "technologies" (tank support struts) fail in these operational extremes.

        Every component, moving or not, has a non-zero chance of failure. More parts, higher failure probability. Put those parts into an extreme operating environment, probability of something unanticipated biting you in the ass

    • by dbIII ( 701233 )

      A single ungodly complex engine

      That's rockets for you. Anything other than solid fuel stuff gets bits added onto bits to even out what the first bit does.

      Looks more like a engine that would need to be torn down and inspected after every flight


  • It should read "leaving this planet is the only way of saving ourselves". I'm pretty sure the Earth will be here long after any sign of us has vanished.

  • Seems like a company we can trust with people's lives.

    • "Skylons" were the name given to twinkling lights in the sky by Holly Marshall in the original "Land of the Lost" series. They were so named because they looked like pylons in the sky.
      • Thanks - didn't turn up in my web searches (except for disambiguation #5 on Wikipedia) and considering I was born in the same year as Land of the Lost started it's not surprising I wasn't aware of the link.

    • Nope, it's a reference to the 1951 Festival of Britain [wikipedia.org].

  • I RTFA, and I won't get that 3 minutes back.

    It's the web equivalent of an infomercial, completele with the "Everything now sucks, SUCKS SUCKS!

    "But we here at Skylon, we have the improvement needed to transform those sucky rocket based systems into a awesome never look back Skylon System!"

    Which by the way, in no way eliminates those rockets they go way out of their way to tell us - suck.

    Come back when your web page wasn't designed and populated by the Marketing department and some ad agency.

  • link [examiner.com] .. now would be a good time for slashdot to have a discussion on the balkanization of the Internet. Where the media companies are trying to turn Internet media back into television.
  • I see the potential but this particular project has been popping in newspapers in one form or another for the last 30 years.
    • by tsotha ( 720379 )
      There's something about engineers and rockets. Franklin Chang-Diaz has been plugging away at VASIMR since 1977.
  • British Rocket plane sparks Flame War on Slash Dot!
  • they go with round windows this time.

Top Ten Things Overheard At The ANSI C Draft Committee Meetings: (8) I'm on the committee and I *still* don't know what the hell #pragma is for.