like a normal airplane but flying so
high and so fast that when you unfasten
your seat belt, you float around the cabin.
Look out of the windows: on one side is
the inky blackness of deep space, while
on the other is the electric blue of your
home planet, Earth.
This is no joyride for a few brief minutes
of space-tourism weightlessness. Instead
you are three, five or even 10 times higher
than those little hops. In front of you is
your destination: a space station. Perhaps
it is a hotel or a place of work. You are in
low earth orbit – and you’ve got there in
far less time than it takes for a transatlantic
This is the promise of the spaceplane, and
it took a step closer to reality yesterday.
UK Minister for Universities and Science
David Willetts confirmed the government’s
£60m investment in Reaction Engines Ltd.
Spaceplanes are what engineers call
single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO). They have
long been a dream because they would be
fully reusable, taking off and landing from a
If all goes to plan, the first test flights could
happen in 2019, and Skylon – Reaction Engines’
spaceplane – could be visiting the International
Space Station by 2022. It will carry 15 tonnes
of cargo on each trip. That’s almost twice the
amount of cargo that the European Space
Agency’s ATV vehicle can carry.
To reach orbit, Skylon will use Sabre to boost
it to Mach 5. It will then close the air intakes
and use a small amount of onboard oxidizer to
turn the jets into rockets and boost itself to
Mach 22. At this speed, roughly 7.5km/s, the
craft will reach low earth orbit.
Used terrestrially, an airplane powered by Sabre
engines could whiz you from the UK to Australia
in just four hours, the same time it takes
holidaying Brits to reach the Canary Islands.
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