YET ANOTHERr British invention is set to change our lives. Reaction Engines Ltd believes its Sabre engine, which would operate like a jet engine in the atmosphere and a rocket in space, could displace rockets for space access and transform air travel by bringing any destination on Earth to no more than four hours away.
That ambition was given a boost in November by the European Space Agency, which has acted as an independent auditor on the Sabre test program.
"ESA is satisfied that the tests demonstrate the technology required for the Sabre engine development," the agency's head of propulsion engineering Mark Ford told a news conference.
"One of the major obstacles to a re-usable vehicle has been removed," he said. "The gateway is now open to move beyond the jet age."
The space plane, dubbed Skylon, only exists on paper. What the company has right now is a remarkable heat exchanger that is able to cool air sucked into the engine at high speed from 1,000 degrees Celsius to minus 150 degrees in one hundredth of a second.
This core piece of technology solves one of the constraints that limit jet engines to a top speed of about 2.5 times the speed of sound, which Reaction Engines believes it could double.
The challenge for the engineers was to find a way to cool the air quickly without frost forming on the heat exchanger, which would clog it up and stop it working.
Using a nest of fine pipes that resemble a large wire coil, the engineers have managed to get round this fatal problem that would normally follow from such rapid cooling of the moisture in atmospheric air.
They are tight-lipped on exactly how they managed to do it....
Reaction Engines is Alan Bond, who developed the Horizontal Take-off and Landing (HOTOL) shuttle design some years ago which, though it got no real government support, is widely accepted could have done what NASA's shuttle promised and indeed SpaceX is now achieving. So this is a very serious option.
The European Space Agency testing does not mean ESA is going to pay for it, despite the British government recently deciding to give a one-off grant of £1.2 billion mainly for the manned space programme.
That is probably a good thing because ESA is a bureaucratic mess that, on half the budget of NASA, has never managed to do anything innovative in manned space development. What its contribution here, of auditing the Sabre rocket tests, amounts to is giving a governmental seal of approval.
Reaction Engines' Chief executive Tim Hayter believes the company could have an operational engine ready for sale within 10 years if it can raise the development funding....
The firm has so far received 90 percent of its funding from private sources, mainly rich individuals including chairman Nigel McNair Scott, the former mining industry executive who also chairs property developer Helical Bar.
Chief executive Tim Hayter told Reuters he would welcome government investment in the company, mainly because of the credibility that would add to the project.
But the focus will be on raising the majority of the 250 million pounds it needs now from a mix of institutional investors, high net worth individuals and possibly potential partners in the aerospace industry.
I don't believe anybody investing their own money is going to feel that ESA bureaucrats are better judges of what makes a good investment for them than they are. What he means by "adding credibility" is that in our nominally free market society the major risk to large investments is that government isn't on your side.
You can have highly feasible venture capable of making vast profits but if you fear the government will ban it (most GM, nuclear), declare a several year moratorium so that you stand round with your hands in your pockets as America develops it (shale gas), play push-me-pull-me over planning permission (Trump's golf course), bring in regulations to force you to sell at under cost and thus bankrupt the industry (nuclear under the previous government), openly prevent you competing with the government owned competition (Murdoch's bid to buy all of Sky and expand it), have nobody willing to say they will support you as the regulators work you over (why Virgin are going to launch from Sweden rather than Lossiemouth) or just don't like you (nuclear again), why bother? Why not take your investment to Singapore like the team that created Dolly the Sheep.
An example of how much public support from government adds "credibility" even without money is the way Thatcher's ministers lobbied financial institutions for the billions needed to build the Channel tunnel. In the end they lost much of their money but we have the tunnel. If their successors had put that much effort into promoting the space industry we would have had HOTOL and be well on the way with the Sabre engine. If they had done as much lobbying and also put up a little money to show they meant it how much further forward would we be now?
So what they mean by adding credibility is that saying ESA has approved it means government approves it. Probably.
This, if it works according to spec, which I think it will, is indeed a major breakthrough which will make fast commercial flight to Australia and far more important, to orbit (we already know how to get to Australia) a practical proposition. The comparison with the jet engine is apt.
But it won't just be delivered tomorrow by Santa. Developing such things takes effort, engineering genius and money. Frank Whittle submitted his first jet engine patent in 1930 so 10 years to an operational engine is not pessimistic.
Meanwhile SpaceX is operational now. Private firms intending to go to the Moon and the asteroids are working now. Singapore and Abu Dhabi are building spaceports now.
The world space industry is growing at 10% a year. Britain's (worth £9bn a year) is growing the same. Our government's ambition (£10 million a year support so that we will have a £30 billion industry by 2030) implies our industry's growth rate will sink to under 7% annually. Still ahead of almost every other industry but not comparable to what could be done if there were serious support and growth. After all Britain's scientists and engineers are, as I previously wrote, better than those of any similar or larger country.
The Reaction Engines device looks to be an enormous technological breakthrough – in 10 years. It should certainly be supported here before it or something similar gets supported elsewhere. But we live in an era of unparalleled technological breakthroughs.
I would also mention the Bristol Space suborbital Ascender, which is essentially a reworking of the 1960s British rocketplane SR53 and which could have given us a suborbital craft years ago had there been a mere £50 million of investment money available. Though there has been £300 million a year for ESA plus a one off £1.2bn there is nothing for the Ascender, which in turn is designed to be bootstrapped into a major orbital capacity.
We are going to have a major human commercial presence in space well within 10 years. SpaceX guarantees that. This new device is "merely" one of many which will make flying to orbit ultimately as easy as flying to Australia (the energy requirement of pushing through 12,000 miles of atmosphere is no less than for achieving orbit.) Since Earth orbit is "halfway to anywhere in the solar system" in energy terms and space can provide us with literally unlimited amounts of energy, metals and other resources that "merely" is orders of magnitude more important than the settlement of Australia.
I have previously argued here that by far the best way of national support would be by taking the money we already spend on ESA and put it into a fund for technology X-Prizes. This policy has been adopted by UKIP but not by those in government, though strangely enough nobody, either last time I wrote of it, or in the government departments involved disputes that prizes are far more, perhaps 100 times more, effective than the grants they prefer.
The Sabre engine is a magnificent technological opportunity, but opportunity is not result. Britain's technological ability is literally second to none but our political class has, over at least decades, shown itself Luddite in the extreme and dropped the ball with a long list of technological achievements, developed by other countries - spending the money on bureaucracy and politically connected schemes (windmills being the extreme example).
Prizes, rather than grants to bureaucracy, ensures the money goes only to achievers and would be a sign to venture capitalists that investment in technology is desired and will be rewarded.