If we are to continue thriving as a connected, energy-hungry planet, we will eventually need to look beyond our own atmosphere.
Space – if we can access it economically – offers a tantalising solution to global energy and resource challenges, and a raft of opportunities in manufacturing, communications, and tourism. Money is pouring in, with vocal cheerleaders in the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Larry Page. The global space economy is estimated to be £400 billion by 2030, and will be far bigger by 2040.
The possibilities are as fantastic as they are transformational. Space-based solar panels could offer ‘always-on’ power, overcoming the intermittency and land requirements of terrestrial renewables. These would be fixed to satellites with a clear line of sight of the sun, generate electricity, and beam it in microwaves to ground receivers. The UK Space Agency has commissioned a study of its feasibility by 2050 and a number of concepts, including CASSIOPeiA in the UK, are in development.
Asteroids full of raw materials could in theory be mined to meet growing demand for infrastructure. Though early attempts have failed, and profitable missions are probably a way off, asteroid mining could well be a nascent industry within 20 years, as dwindling earthly resources and rising environmental costs make the rewards of off-planet mining greater.
Space could also be a destination for manufacturing. It’s low gravity, low temperatures, near vacuum, and abundant solar power, offer useful conditions for some advanced materials production. The moon could become a base for manufacturing space infrastructure for more distant missions, including asteroid mining. Research is already looking at using lunar dust to create oxygen for rocket fuel and metal powders for 3D printing.
Space tourism is likely to evolve into a mature industry by 2040. And the dream of colonising planets – long the realm of science fiction – is starting to feel within reach.
We need a mature transport infrastructure to serve the space industry
If we are to realise these opportunities, and others, we will need ways to make accessing space routine. Just as with earth-bound industries, we need to be able to take machinery, parts, and people, to and from our factories, mines, and tourist attractions.
This means affordable rockets, widely available launch facilities, and economies of scale. A truly mature space industry would see routine rocket launches on a daily basis.
Making this viable will come down to cost. Whilst rocket launches have come down from around $150 million to $25 million, these are still big price tags. They also come with a failure risk of around 5%, adding to overall costs and making routine human space flight unacceptably risky.
A future space infrastructure will need rockets capable of launching for under $1million in today’s money, and with a safety record comparable to aviation, whilst also being environmentally sustainable.
For a long time this has felt like science fiction, but it’s starting to feel very real.
Opening up the space economy – affordable, reliable, space transport
To underpin this future, Reaction Engines’ is researching and developing a revolutionary new propulsion technology that could enable far more affordable rockets. Our Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE) can propel an aircraft to five times the speed of sound in the atmosphere, and 25 times in space.
Our unique innovation is ‘air breathing propulsion’ (see ‘How the SABRE engine works’). This is a fundamental redesign of rocket engines, enabling a far more efficient propulsion system, which in turns allows more versatile rocket designs. This increases launch rates, whilst dramatically lowering manufacturing and operational costs of future launch vehicles.
Reaction Engines propulsion technology is undergoing R&D and testing, with key technologies successfully demonstrated.
Investors are bought in, from private individuals enthused about the space opportunity, to industries such as Boeing and Rolls-Royce who see benefits to their own R&D, to our government who wants the UK to be a leader in space.
We hope that by 2040 our technology will be at the heart of a new space transport industry, with air breathing engines offering a complimentary capability and extremely attractive alternative to rockets (as well as on hypersonic planes travelling twice the speed of Concorde). In the meantime, our revolutionary heat management technology is finding other applications in optimising automotive engines, improving electric vehicles, and generating power from waste heat.
A future space economy will see countries establish space ports as transit hubs, much as air- and seaports serve their respective industries. These will provide a base for spacecraft to travel back and forth between satellites, space stations, and eventually the moon, mars, and the asteroid belt. They will link space and ground infrastructure, ferrying in replacement parts and taking space ores and advanced materials to factories and resellers. Like shipping, rail, and air before it, space transport will one day evolve from the realms of the imagination, to a routine and highly efficient logistics operation.
How the SABRE engine works
In a rocket engine, fuel is mixed with an oxidiser, and combusts to generate propulsion. But carrying this oxidiser on board adds a lot of weight. SABRE generates its own oxidiser from the air around it, thanks to a feat of precision engineering.
During flight, air is sucked into the engine. Rapidly slowing air from hypersonic speeds to a standstill creates high compression, heating it to over 1,000oC.
SABRE’s precooler – a system of thousands of tubes that allow coolant to be injected and removed for extremely efficient cooling – rapidly cools the air to ambient temperatures or down to -150oC in 1/20th of a second.
This has two critical effects. The heat extracted from the air powers a compressor via a turbine. The low temperature air feeds into this compressor, creating oxidiser. This is combusted with hydrogen to create propulsion.
This highly efficient system can be built into a lightweight aircraft or spacecraft design. Outside the atmosphere, it switches to a highly efficient rocket mode, which uses stored liquid oxygen in far smaller quantities.
All this is made possible by the design of the precooler, which incorporates thousands of millimetre size tubes, made from hair-width materials, to deliver revolutionary heat management and fully proven to Mach 5 (1,000oC) temperatures. Reaction Engines worked closely with experts from TWI to understand how to join these together to optimise efficiency and ensure no leakage under extremely harsh temperatures and pressures.
Mark Thomas, CEO of Reaction Engines Ltd.