Artist's rendering of SKYLON in orbit (by Reaction Engines Ltd)

Artist’s rendering of SKYLON in orbit (by Reaction Engines Ltd)

Back in 2011, as the space shuttle program wound down, Ferrebeekeeper published what seemed like an elegy to spaceplanes—mixed-use vehicles capable of operating both as spacecraft and aircraft (most notably the space shuttles).   The dwindling national interest in science and exploration once seemed to indicate that the shuttle program would be the last spaceplane program for a long time.  However, as the United States abandons its interest in cutting-edge Aerospace projects, other nations and private interests are picking up the slack.

Skylon is a British spaceplane concept from a private company, Reaction Engines Limited. During the eighties, Rolls Royce and British Aerospace, poured money and knowledge into the creation of a vehicle named HOTOL (an awkward acronym which stands for HOrizontal TakeOff and Landing).  Although huge amounts of human energy went into HOTOL, it was canceled because of lack of funding.  Reaction Engines Limited is trying to build on the extensive HOTOL designs.

A Concept Model of HOTOL

A Concept Model of HOTOL

Skylon certainly has a futuristic look.  It has a long slender needle-like fuselage with stubby delta wings sticking out midway.  Each of these wings is mounted at the end with a SABRE (Synthetic Air Breathing Engine).  These next-generation engines are the real key to achieving single-stage-to-orbit spaceflight (a milestone which has long proven elusive for space engineers).  Ideally the plane could take off from a runway and speed up to Mach 5.4 as it left the atmosphere and entered orbit.  After deploying its payload it could then glide back down to Earth like a normal plane.

Skylon Diagram

Skylon Diagram

Skylon would be constructed of a carbon fiber frame with heat resistant ceramic tiling and it would employ liquid hydrogen as a fuel to loft its 82 meter long (269 ft) body into near-space (before switching to internal liquid oxygen as it left the atmosphere).  Like HOTOL before it, Skylon was stuck in funding purgatory for a long time, but recently a huge chunk of funding became available to test the viability of the various systems.  These tests were successfully completed in November of 2012 and Reaction is now moving forward with the building of Skylon.

800px-Skylon_colour.svg

Skylon is designed to be vastly cheaper than the shuttle or any current rocket programs (and it would cut down on space debris).  Engineers estimate that one of the crafts could be ready to launch again in only two days after a successful landing (as opposed to the shuttle which required months of refitting).  Let’s hope the technology works out.  Although unmanned interplanetary craft are accomplishing great things, it has been too long since there was a flashy achievement