July 11, 2012

U.K. Government Looking To Open Up Skies For Spaceplanes

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

The U.K. government is embracing the future by working on regulations in order to allow the operation of spaceplanes.

The new regulations would enable launch systems like the Skylon concept being developed by Reaction Engines Limited (REL) to take place in the U.K.

Currently, these types of vehicles are prohibited from using European airspace, but the government is looking to change that.

REL's Skylon vehicle would take off horizontally from a runway, and go straight to orbit without the need for multiple propellant stages.

The company said the system could dramatically lower the cost of putting a satellite into orbit around Earth.

Due to the vehicle's design, it does not currently meet the regulations set out by the government, so a change is needed in order to see that it is able to fly.

"At the moment, there is just a complete gap - there is no European regulatory regime for reusable space vehicles, and we need one," Science Minister David Willetts told BBC News.

Willetts announced the government's plans while speaking at the Farnborough International Airshow.

At the airshow, REL had a booth showcasing its Sabre engine technology, which would burn hydrogen and oxygen to provide thrust.

The Sabre engine is required to have 1,000-degree gases entering its intake, which have to be cooled prior to being compressed and burnt with the hydrogen, according to the BBC report.

The vehicle is able to run in jet mode for as long as needed before transitioning to full rocket mode to take Skylon into orbit.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is assessing the Skylon program at the request of the U.K. Space agency, auditing the pre-cooler's capabilities and performance.

"I am a rocket engineer and I have looked at the Skylon project," Jean-Jacques Dordain,  Paris-based agency's director-general, told BBC News.  "We are discussing with Reaction Engines how we can continue to work with them to get some more insights on their project“¦ some more technical studies."

The project still needs $388 million to get Skylon into its final stage, according to the BBC report.

"We need to find investors or strategic partners with the vision and drive to see the long-term on this," Tim Hayter, REL's new chief executive, told BBC.  "It's not going to be a quick turn-around [investment], but this is a disruptive technology that could turn launch vehicles on their head and we need people who can see that."