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UK Skylon spaceplane set for engine test in '3-4 years'

Also - fly to the space station with Brian Blessed!

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

New vid shows passenger ops - with Brian Blessed narrating!

While awaiting such funding, Reaction Engines designers continue to refine their plans. A basic Skylon would be unmanned, but should a customer wish to send people into space a Skylon Personnel/Logistics Module can be installed in the payload bay, able to accommodate 25 people and dock with a space station in orbit.

Here's a company vid showing SPLM ops, not yet much viewed on YouTube:

Thus far, people have not yet chosen to entrust themselves even to an unpiloted aircraft, let alone an unpiloted spaceplane. The shuttle, for instance, has a pilot, controls and conventional flight-deck windows all complete.

According to Varvill, though, the concept of a pilot is largely irrelevant to Skylon.

"Computers can fly it far more safely than a human," he says. "There would have to be computers in the loop even if you wanted to have a pilot for some reason."

The Reaction Engines website concedes that passenger-carrying Skylons would probably have a "captain", though Varvill prefers the term "airline representative". Whatever this supercargo/passenger-relations person was called, they would have to ride in the payload bay without windows like everyone else, much though ordinary aeroplane pilots are so far resisting this sort of thing.

Another nifty gadget the Reaction Engines boffins have come up with is Skylon Upper Stage (SUS). This is a small robot rocket designed to be attached to a geostationary satellite inside the Skylon's payload bay. On arrival in low orbit, the SUS and its cargo leave the bay and the satellite is boosted onward to high geostationary orbit, which the Skylon mothership itself cannot reach.

Having placed the satellite, the SUS can then return to rendezvous with the Skylon and be stowed away again in the payload bay for return to Earth, refuelling and re-use.

"The main market is geostationary," says Varvill. "Skylon needs to be able to do that right away."

In the longer term, Reaction Engines considers that it would be more efficient to leave orbital-transfer ships permanently in orbit for such tasks. These would collect their cargoes (and refuel) from Skylons. The company also has ambitious plans for orbiting shipyards in which missions to the planets might be assembled, powered by fuel cells, wrapped in Mylar against micrometeorites and internally floodlit to deal with the frequent pitch blackness experienced by low-orbiting spacecraft.

Varvill considers that all this might be reality in "20 years". He concedes, however, that Reaction Engines has been in operation since the 1980s, when the proposed UK "HOTOL" spaceplane project foundered - so it's been 20 years already.

But you have to say that Skylon seems at least as much worth spending $12bn to develop as the A380 or Ariane 5. We here on the Reg spaceplane desk at least will be hoping that the world does see a successful SABRE test within a few years. ®

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