The UK government has provided an extra £60m of funding to Reaction Engines to develop their innovative concept of a single stage rocket propulsion system.
The Oxfordshire-based company, founded in 1989 by a group of former Rolls-Royce engineers, has been working on a multi-purpose spaceplane called Skylon that could be used either for superfast transcontinental travel or to launch satellites or bring human crew to low Earth orbit.
"We're investing £60m in this and we expect them to go out and find private support as well," David Willetts, minister for universities and science told BBC's Radio Five Live.
"But we're backing this because it's a technology that has been tested in the lab, it's been assessed by outside experts as right in principle, but now it needs to be built on a full-scale prototype before it can get commercial.”
The company’s SABRE engine presents a rather ground-breaking solution, as it allows switching between a conventional air-breathing jet-engine mode for atmospheric travel and a rocket mode, relying on on-board stored oxygen, for travel above the Earth’s atmosphere.
By combining these two engine-modes in one body, SABRE promises to cut launching costs as less oxygen needs to be carried aboard.
The funding, having been announced today, is supposed to cover a full-scale prototype development. In the past, Reaction Engines has received funding also from the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency.
"We think it's right to support it through that crucial stage. That's where too many great British ideas in the past have failed," Willetts said. "Whenever it's a matter of investing in the science and the research that's going to get us the jobs of the future, in the technologies of the future, the Chancellor is always willing to back them.”
Skylon, seen by some as a potential rival to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, would take off from a runway like a normal aircraft and would be able to carry an up to 15-tonne payload to the low Earth orbit. It’s reusability would allow for it to be quickly turned around for another flight after landing.
When used for transcontinental travel, Skylon would enable cutting flying time from UK to Australia to less than four hours.