ESA Validates SABRE Engine Technology

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The European Space Agency (ESA) is negotiating a contract with Reaction Engines Ltd. (REL) that could advance cutting-edge propulsion technology the UK-based company is developing to power a reusable space vehicle.

The award, expected to be worth around €1 million ($1.3 million) over a year, would support work underway on REL's Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE), a radical new motor that uses lightweight heat exchangers to chill the incoming airstream from over 1,000 deg. C. to minus 150 deg. C. in less than 1/100th of a second.

REL Chief Executive Tim Hayter says the integrated jet and rocket propulsion system could dramatically lower launch costs and reduce fuel burn by 5-10% while enabling aircraft-like access to space.

“We have made the biggest breakthrough in propulsion technology since the jet engine,” Hayter said during a Nov. 28 news conference in London. “This could have a transformational impact on the global space market," which Hayter says is worth $300 billion annually, including $14 billion to the UK.

Earlier this year REL made a surprise bid under ESA's New European Launch Services (NELS) program based on the company's single-stage-to-orbit Skylon rocket concept, including the SABRE motor design.

Although the bid was rejected, it caught the attention of ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain, who at the time said the company is onto something big that could lead to a radical departure in future launch vehicles.

SABRE has already benefited from €2-3 million in ESA co-financing under a 2008 arrangement with the agency's ESTEC facility in Noorwijk, Netherlands. In August REL completed a series of tests managed by ESTEC under the jointly funded agreement.

“The precooler test objectives have all been successfully met and ESA is satisfied the tests demonstrate the technology required for the SABRE engine development,” said Mark Ford, head of propulsion engineering at ESTEC, adding that he sees no technical reason why the engine development cannot move forward to Phase 3. "We believe success in the next phase will place Europe potentially at the forefront of a new technology."

But that success will come at a price. Hayter says the company needs to raise close to $400 million for a Phase 3 sub-scale engine demonstration and flight motor design.

"We are looking on the order of £250 million" for the next stage of SABRE development, he said, adding that the company is more than 90% privately funded with only minor financial contributions from ESA, the EU and the UK government, a financing strategy he does not expect will change.

ESA approved $13 billion in new spending during a key budget meeting earlier this month, a figure that includes a 25% increase in total contributions from the UK over the next five years. But so far the extra money has not been earmarked for SABRE.

“The UK is not part of the ESA launcher program, and would have to join,” Ford said when asked if ESA will fund the engine's continued development. “But going forward, we've been engaged by the UK Space Agency to go through and plan Phase 3. This will conclude soon.”

In the meantime, Ford says ESTEC plans to continue its technical and programmatic oversight of the project on behalf of the UK Space Agency.

“For me, the next stage is a sub-scale demonstrator of the engine. In parallel we want to feed that into a proper flight engine design,” he says.

REL Co-founder and Chief Engineer Alan Bond says REL also plans to flight test the SABRE engine installation and begin establishing the industry consortium that will build it.

"REL has no ambitions to build the entire vehicle," Bond says. "Phase 3 is not only taking engine technology a step further but also engaging all of the infrastructure in order to proceed with the project."

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