Paris Air Show

UK breakthrough heralds air breathing rocket engine

 - June 17, 2013, 12:25 AM


A major breakthrough in heat exchanger technology has removed one of the greatest obstacles to development of an air-breathing rocket engine slated to enable spaceflight by the Skylon reusable spaceplane.

UK company Fine Tubes (Hall 2B E170) has managed to produce 2,000 kilometers of ultra-fine, lightweight nickel alloy tubing necessary to enable the heat exchangers at the heart of the new engine to cool airstreams from over 1000 degrees C to minus 150 degrees C in less than 1/100th of a second. The wall thickness of the tubing is half the diameter of a human hair.

The heat exchangers will be used in the Reaction Engines Sabre air-breathing rocket engine, which has been under development for 20 years. Mark Ford, head of propulsion engineering at the European Space Agency, said the availability of lightweight heat exchangers removed one of the major obstacles to developing air-breathing engines for launch vehicles. “With this now successfully demonstrated by Reaction Engines,” he said, “there are currently no technical reasons why the Sabre engine program cannot move forward into the next stage of development.”

According to Robert Bond, corporate director of Reaction Engines, which is also developer of the Skylon, no other company has managed to create similar heat exchangers. “The Fine Tubes product is extremely high quality, meeting all of the product specifications and we are very pleased with its performance.”

Reaction Engines claims the advanced, combined-cycle air-breathing Sabre engine will enable air-breathing vehicles to operate at up to five times the speed of sound or fly directly into orbit. It says the development of the heat exchanger opens the way for the next phase of tests, leading to a prototype of a fully functioning engine.