A model of the Sabre engine

Rocket renaissance symbolises British space optimism

Mark Williamson reports from the UK Space Conference, held in Glasgow on 15-17 July 2013.

After years as what could be termed a ‘stealth industry’, the UK’s space sector has emerged into the sunlight with a string of positive developments: a 25 per cent increase in annual contributions to the European Space Agency, the inauguration of new ESA and other space facilities at Harwell, and the appointment of the UK’s first official astronaut, Tim Peake.Two years ago, at the time of the inaugural UK Space Conference, the space sector was making a £7.5bn annual contribution to the UK economy. On 16 July, at the second of these biennial gatherings, Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts confirmed that the contribution had risen to more than £9bn a year, which is good news for a government “focusing hard on economic growth”. Even more significantly, he expressed confidence in the UK’s target to capture “10 per cent of the world space market, expected to be worth $400bn by 2030”.

Space Minister Willetts is the closest thing to a ‘local hero’ in the space community, by all accounts responsible for persuading Chancellor George Osborne to increase the UK’s space budget significantly at a time when the axe is falling in other areas. A cynic might say that such efforts will earn him a reshuffle to the back benches, but his removal from the fray would be mourned by the space community. Not since the heady days of the Blue Streak rocket (whose cancellation in the early 1970s marked the UK’s abdication from the space launch industry), has the sector had cause to lionise a politician.

Thus it is that Willetts is welcomed to the fold as a cross between a visiting dignitary and a conquering hero, referred to on the podium as ‘David’ as often as ‘Minister’. Willetts was ubiquitous at the conference, always smiling, always positive, eminently likeable. He outshone the capable and eloquent CEO of the UK Space Agency, David Parker, and even the engaging Major Tim, who bounced his way between media interviews and lectures to young ‘space cadets’.

But Willetts could not eclipse the taciturn and self-effacing engineer-turned-entrepreneur Alan Bond, managing director of Reaction Engines and designer of the Skylon spaceplane and its ‘game-changing’ air-breathing rocket engine, Sabre. Shoehorned into one of the smallest rooms at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, the two men announced the UK government’s investment of £60m, via the UK Space Agency, for the next stage of Sabre development.

Referring to the independent validation of the engine concept by an ESA technical review in late 2012, Willets said that there was “clear evidence that Reaction Engines had passed a crucial test” and that “public support was required”. Bond’s less formal take on the review was that it “verified that we weren’t all barking!”. He added with a wry smile: “The nightmare scenario has arrived… someone has said ‘do it’.”

Disruptive technology

Turning to the engineering, Willetts noted the considerable technical feat of demonstrating lightweight heat exchangers “that cool incoming air at over 1,000°C to -150°C in a hundredth of a second”. It is this capability that, in effect, allows more-or-less conventional engine technology beyond the pre-cooler to use atmospheric oxygen in the combustion process, thus significantly reducing the mass of liquid oxidiser onboard. The Sabre - or Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine - is designed to operate as a conventional rocket engine once it is beyond the atmosphere.

Bond called the investment “a fantastic shot in the arm for the UK aerospace and space sectors, as well as the broader economy” that will allow Reaction Engines to move to the next phase of engine and heat management technology. “Our proven, revolutionary technology has the potential to change the world.”

Willetts suggested that the development of Sabre “makes Alan Bond the modern-day Frank Whittle”. He warned, however, of the danger of not supporting home-grown technologies in their formative years: after the war, he said, “jet engine technology was sold to the US for just £800,000”, but added confidently: “This won’t happen with Sabre.”

One reason for government willingness to support Reaction Engines is the company’s proven ability to raise private funding. Bond said: “Eighty-five per cent has come from high-net-worth individuals,” with the remaining 15 per cent from the government and ESA. Financial inertia is a challenge, but once the ball is rolling the situation eases. “We had to get private investment to attract ESA,” said Bond, “but the ESA money attracted more private investment”.

Although Reaction Engines is wary of releasing too much technical information at this stage, an example of the company’s “expansion-deflection nozzle” was featured on its stand. According to Bond, the nozzle has exhibited “stable operation under a wide range of conditions”. Also featured was a sheet of composite aeroshell material that would give the Skylon vehicle its characteristic jet-black colour. At a weight-saving 0.5mm thick, the material is corrugated to cope with the expansion that results from hypersonic flight through the atmosphere. Bond confirmed that they are “well ahead with all the materials required”.

He shared an anecdote that may instruct others faced with convincing a sceptical market that their “transformational” or “disruptive” technology is worth developing. Apparently the well-regarded German space agency, DLR, considered the Skylon configuration (a long, pointy aeroshell with wing-mounted engine nacelles) to be “not re-enterable”. “We paid them to do some re-entry modelling and it was a case of poacher turned gamekeeper: the results were actually better than we had expected.” It was a similar, confident challenge that ultimately led to ESA’s validation of the engine concept.

Risk and reward

Indeed, the Sabre peer-review process and the UK government’s enhanced support of ESA gave Willetts the confidence to press the agency’s director general, Jean-Jacques Dordain, to include the technologies in its future launch vehicle programme. “I will be very gently teasing Jean-Jacques,” he said, to back this new technology “for low-cost access to space”.

Dordain has shown his appreciation for the UK’s enhanced involvement in ESA since the 25 per cent funding increase was announced and continues to praise the UK’s entrepreneurialism and spirit of innovation. The UK had inspired ESA in pioneering the concept of the public-private partnership for space programmes, he said. “Now, they are all done this way.”

As far as innovation goes, Dordain’s view is that “the only way to make progress is by taking risks”, as the UK has with Sabre. “I like that,” he added, “and I am pleased to see that the UK is back into launchers.”

Willetts views the government’s commitment to Reaction Engines as “just part of a new era”, in which Britain is once again a leader in propulsion technology. “I look forward to the day when the UK has the technical capability to go all the way from Heathrow to Mars,” he said with a smile.

Taken in isolation, a £60m investment in a new engine for a vehicle that won’t fly until 2020 at the earliest might seem like ‘small potatoes’, but technology development is often as much about context and timing as it is about financing. Sometimes, an equation can only be solved under the right boundary conditions. Having observed and worked in the space industry for more than 30 years, I have never experienced such a rising tide of cautious optimism within the UK space community, currently centred on the launch element. Perhaps conditions are right to ignite a second golden age of UK space propulsion. *

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