Launch of revolutionary space plane 'less than 10 years away'

Easy access to space using a revolutionary rocket engine could be less than 10 years away, it was claimed today.

Engineers at the University of Bristol are part of the European team working on the Skylon space plane.

The reusable craft will be able to deliver a payload of more than 12 tonnes into orbit, returning to land on the same runway it took off from. Its success depends on the Sabre air-breathing rocket engine, partly being developed in Bristol.

Reusable rocket: The Skylon space plane

Reusable rocket: The Skylon space plane will be able to send satellites into orbit and then return to land on Earth

Sabre is a unique hybrid engine that can 'breathe' air when in the atmosphere like a conventional jet and switch to rocket power in space.

In air-breathing mode, air is cooled and compressed before being fed into the rocket engine along with hydrogen fuel. When in rocket mode, the hydrogen is burned with liquid oxygen.

Alan Bond, managing director of Oxford-based Reaction Engines Ltd (REL) which is leading the multi-million pound hybrid engine project, said: 'Traditional throwaway rockets costing more than £70million per launch are a drag on the growth of this market.

'The Holy Grail to transform the economics of getting into space is to use a truly reusable space plane capable of taking off from an airport and climbing directly into space, delivering its satellite payload and automatically returning safely to Earth.

'Years of planning and research by REL on the Skylon vehicle and its unique Sabre air-breathing engine mean that we have an inside track on realising this goal. Skylon could reduce the cost of getting into space by a factor of ten.'

Testing of the engine's unique air-cooling technology is to be conducted at REL's experimental facility in Culham, Oxfordshire.

Meanwhile, Dr Neil Taylor at Bristol University's Department of Aerospace Engineering will lead a demonstration of advanced rocket nozzles that adapt to ambient atmospheric pressure.

Other tests of the rocket's combustion chamber will take place in Germany.

Dr Taylor said: 'If successful, the impact the overall project will have is enormous, and it's really exciting to be in at the beginning of a potential revolution in the space world.'

The demonstration programme aims to remove all the outstanding technical hurdles still to be crossed by the Sabre project.

This will pave the way to a full engine development programme and the first Skylon launch, which could be less than a decade away, said the engineers.

The programme is being supported by a new £900,000 grant from the European Space Agency.

Lord Drayson, Minister for Science and Innovation, said: 'This is an example of a British company developing world-beating technology with exciting consequences for the future of space.

'It is fantastic that Reaction Engines, the British National Space Centre and ESA have successfully secured this public-private partnership arrangement and I look forward to seeing how the project the progresses.'