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The UK and next generation space launch technology

Building a leading role

By Mark Thomas  

This article was produced in association with Reaction Engines

The global space sector is in a period of unprecedented transformation and growth. Space launch, which was once the domain of National Space Agencies and multinational primes, is now becoming accessible to companies and enterprising organisations of all sizes. In the last century, the jet engine invented by Sir Frank Whittle was arguably the most significant innovation in transportation since the railway. Now we are on the cusp of a new revolution, as the promise of hypersonic transportation brings the world even closer together and makes space ever more accessible.

New technologies are being developed today that will enable truly affordable and routine access to space, changing the paradigm that space will always be expensive and out of reach. Reaction Engines Ltd, a British SME based in Oxfordshire, is one of the companies leading the way and driving this future vision. With state-of-the-art engineering based on pioneering technology entirely developed in the UK, the unique Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE) concept is quite literally game changing. SABRE is as significant an invention as the jet engine, the first in a new class of propulsion system that has the potential to deliver a breakthrough in air and space transportation.

Twice as fast as the fastest jet engine and many times more efficient than the world’s best rocket engines, SABRE enables air-breathing flight from standstill to over five times the speed of sound (hypersonic), before switching to a higher thrust rocket mode. SABRE’s versatility will enable aircraft-like horizontal take-off and landing operations, radically improving the affordability and responsiveness of access to space. SABRE technology is also well suited to a wide range of very fast flight applications, both defence and commercial, where the “need for speed” is becoming a strategic imperative. A key feature of the engine is its ability to precool air almost instantaneously enabling high speed vehicles to punch through the hypersonic heat barrier. The Company has a long history of pioneering advanced and ultra-lightweight heat exchanger technology with this goal in mind.

Reaction Engines’ heat exchanger technology has a wide range of commercial applications. These include motorsport, hybrid-electric vehicle cooling, environmental and power systems, and small satellite thermal control. This range of adjacent and spin-out applications represents a great opportunity for high value job creation in response to emerging industrial challenges across a variety of sectors.

Reaction Engines is at the forefront of innovation and is one of the UK’s fastest growing private engineering and technology companies. Within its R&D and manufacturing facilities Reaction Engines now has over 170 employees including some of the finest young engineers and apprentices in the UK. A unique rocket engine test facility is under construction in Buckinghamshire and will become operational by the end of 2019, seeing the first SABRE engine begin testing soon after.

Over 90% of the Company’s funding to date has come from the UK and significant capital has been received from private investors, supporting the transition from successful research into design and development. Public funding has been critical, with a £60m UK Government commitment over three years via the UK Space Agency and European Space Agency. Most recently the company has been backed by industry leaders such as BAE Systems, Boeing and Rolls-Royce. In total, Reaction Engines has secured over £100m of investment in the last three years and has nearly trebled in size. Funding has also been attracted from the US government for its expanding operations in Colorado.

Reaction Engines has undoubtedly benefitted from a partnership model where incisive and targeted government support has been matched by significant private sector and strategic investment. This has been instrumental in supporting the development of this world-beating British technology. It offers not only a sustainable model for Reaction Engines as the business moves forward into more capital intensive phases beyond 2020, but it is also a template for other innovative start-up companies within Britain’s science and engineering sectors.

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