British company Reaction Engines Limited based in Oxfordshire announced about plans for creating scaled version of their SABRE engine especially for test and potentially commercial purposes.
Reaction Engines is in a clear upward phase of its development. Company after years of independent developing SABRE technology, which in simple words gives opportunity for using atmospheric air as oxidizer for burning liquid hydrogen. It provides ability to use same engine on low altitude just like jet engine, on high altitude, but still in atmosphere, as ramjet engine and on extreme altitudes and in space using LOX from tanks. Company also created project of unmanned cargo spaceplane, which will horizontal take off and vertical landing cargo vehicle powered by Two SABRE engines. It will reach high altitude using fuel and atmospheric air, next switching SABRE engines to rocket mode and use oxidizer from onboard tanks it will continue flight to Earth orbit. Using SABRE engines will help in reducing weight of oxidizer for engines and increase payload; Skylon is designed to reach 160 km LEO orbit with 17 t of payload also with special modular section with passengers - everything with takeoff and landing from regular airfields.
It should not be surprising, that after long time sacrificed for developing SABRE, REL finally started to possess investors. In November 2015 Company acquired £20 million from BAE and additional government grant of £60 million for further development of SABRE project. Recently on July 12, 2016, European Space Agency announced officially about investing Reaction Engines Limited €10 million. Ten days ago Company surprisingly announced, that they are going to change concept of development of SABRE and instead building full scale engine with four chambers (in configuration for Skylon), they will put effort to create smaller unit with single chamber and radiator. This version could be adopted for jet plane for testing more easily due the dimensions close to ordinary jet engine used for example in fighters. This decision was probably caused by potentially long time needed for refining construction of SABRE and adopting it into Skylon, which also is rather in very early phase. Company would be forced to wait for the moment when Skylon and SABRE would start to provide income at least ten to fifteen years. According to Aviation Week Network and interview given by CEO of REL Mark Thomas, Company counts on interest in a smaller version from various customers. Smaller engine could be tested and aimed at mass production faster than four chambered SABRE designed for Skylon. This in turn will give funds to REL for developing SABRE and Skylon in more balanced way. It could be put under question why Company needs funds if ESA, British government and BAE supported REL with impressive funds. Probably answer is simple: Reaction Engines would like to develop Skylon simultaneously with SABRE to offer on market full solution and in such a way to get a dominant position and probably agreements signed with UK Space Agency (which is representing UK government), BAE and ESA are giving REL free rein in terms of developing SABRE engine. At the moment full version of SABRE is planned to be moved for fire tests in 2020s, but reduced version will be assembled and will start test phase in 15 months. If tests will pass successfully it is quite possible that SABRE engines will become in future available on commercial market.
On picture above: SABER with Skylon model in the background.