Spaceplanes have captured the attention of the general public for years. The idea of a private company whisking a well-heeled, wannabe space explorer up into orbit creates images of weightlessly floating through the craft’s cabin, seeing the earth from outer space, and joining the elite few who have ventured beyond our atmosphere. Our national space program, NASA, has never been aimed at the civilian market. Rather, a select group of astronauts, scientists, and military pilots have had the experience of leaving the confines of earth for the void of space. More and more people are wondering if spaceplanes will be commonplace within their lifetime. Recent technological advances have been aimed at making spaceplanes not only a reality – but also a realistic means of transporting people and cargo into space.
What’s Wrong With The Current Space Shuttle Engine?
The engine that currently powers the space shuttle isn’t designed for your typical take off and landing scheme that a spaceplane encounters. In fact, the space shuttle had to be launched into space like a rocket but it was able to land more like a traditional airplane. The liftoff sequence for the space shuttle was a remarkable sight, while its landing maneuvers were usually less dramatic. Spaceplanes must be able to lift off from a standard runway and re-enter the atmosphere with ease. These craft must be able to glide to a smooth runway landing if they are to become commonplace.
The space shuttle needed expendable rocket boosters to drive the massive craft upward – and these rockets are heavy, expensive, and rather slow. Recent innovations have resulted in a new “hybrid” engine that promises to propel a standard spaceplane down a runway, up into the air, across the skies at over Mach 5, and upward into space. These engines, designed and built by Reaction Engines in Oxfordshire, England, have evidently solved the biggest problem that spaceplanes and space shuttles face – heat!
By flash chilling the incoming air, the Reaction SABRE (Synergistic, Air-Breathing Rocket Engine) allows for more complete and efficient combustion, and no need for expensive “throw away” rocket boosters. This engine type will also reduce landing-to-flight turnaround time to just a few days – meaning that a spaceplane that has just returned from space will be able to head back out beyond the atmosphere in as little as 48-72 hours. The last space shuttle took over two months to prepare for the next flight.
Spaceplanes May Possibly Emerge as the Biggest Tech Innovation in History
The ability to travel into space for a variety of reasons – like resource extraction, scientific research, or simply curiosity, will become a priority to private enterprises and governments, alike. Once technological advances, like the SABRE engine, have been proven, the prospect of going beyond the bounds of our atmosphere will become much more of a reality to the masses.