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ESA gives green light to Skylon spaceplane

There are no major barriers to the development of the UK Space Agency's Skylon spaceplane and the new Sabre engine that drives it, the European Space Agency has said in an assessment

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Topic: Innovation
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Skylon spaceplane in orbit

The European Space Agency (ESA) has completed a technical assessment of the Skylon spaceplane and concluded there are no major technical stumbling blocks to continued development of the craft or its engine.

The Skylon, shown in an artist's impression above, is an unpiloted, single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) spaceplane being developed by the UK Space Agency. The ESA said in a report it can be created "with today's current technology" and, if future engine tests are successful, it will represent "a major breakthrough in propulsion worldwide". The European Space Agency report (PDF) was released by the UK Space Agency on Wednesday.

Oxford-based Reaction Engines, which is signed up to manufacture the spaceplane, said the Skylon will be capable of delivering payloads of satellites and equipment of up to 15 tonnes into low Earth orbit — around 300km above the Earth.


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Skyon schematics

The vehicle is intended to massively reduce the cost of completing commercial activities in space. Its cost could be around one-fiftieth that of using traditional rockets, according to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS).

Skylon will use a Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (Sabre) to propel it into low Earth orbit. The Sabre design is a combined cycle rocket engine with two modes. This means it uses liquid hydrogen combined with oxygen in the air for propulsion to heights of 26km and speeds below Mach 5, and then switches to on-board liquid oxygen for the final stage of ascent.

"The Sabre engine is not only a key piece of enabling technology for Skylon, but [is] itself an important development with potential worldwide impact," the ESA report said. "The demonstration of the Sabre cycle is the next logical step."


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Skylon on runway

The Skylon design omits infrastructure such as booster rockets and external fuel tanks, which should keep the cost of the project down in comparison with traditional spacecraft. Additionally, the craft will take off and land on a conventional runway, avoiding the expense of dedicated launch facilities.

Once it has completed its mission, Skylon can re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and land like a traditional aeroplane. Ths means it can be prepared for another mission within a short time frame.

Re-entry occurs approximately 10km higher than the space shuttle. The temperature on re-entry is kept down to 1100 Kelvin (K) by dynamically controlling the trajectory based on feedback from external surfaces.

"Skylon differs from other spaceplane configurations in several key respects," the ESA said in its report. "Apart from the unique propulsion system, the main difference is an aerodynamic configuration that comprises a definite wing plus body. This was selected because it proved to be more optimum in terms of weight, lift and volume than the more fashionable blended bodies frequently portrayed for spaceplanes."


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Skylon spaceplane in flight

The ESA's assessment was made up of two parts. The first was a series of visits made by the ESA to review the designs and witness critical component testing. The second was the system requirement review — which took place in September 2010 — during which more than 100 international aerospace experts reviewed the technical and economic feasibility of the plans.

The next phase of testing will conclude in 2012. This will involve working trials of some aspects of the technology, including a demonstration of the pre-cooled engine with frost control air intake, as well as a re-assessment of the implementation and operational issues of the Sabre system.


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