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Science minister dreams of skies filled with spaceplanes

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The UK government is trying to open up the skies to revolutionary new spaceplanes and other such craft like Reaction Engines' Skylon.

Science minister David Willetts said in a speech at the Farnborough Air Show yesterday that the UK and Europe had an opportunity to "seize the advantage" in space technology.

"At present, in my view, Europe is not ready to grab this opportunity – and we must not lose out. We must formulate a regulatory framework that will allow reusable aircraft-type launchers to operate here," he said.

"That is why I can announce today that I will be working with Justine Greening at the Department for Transport, to determine how the UK, indeed the whole of Europe, can best position itself to take advantage of space plane activities.

"We'll be exploring the type of certification needed for spacecraft and identifying the essential characteristics of an operational spaceport. Antonio Tajani, European Competition Commissioner has also agreed to pursue this matter with the European Air Safety Agency."

While Britain isn't exactly in the launcher business at the moment, there are a couple of companies trying to make it happen including Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Reaction Engines with its Skylon spaceplane - as pictured below in this video.

Reaction Engines was at this week's air show as well to announce that the second round of testing on its SABRE engine, which will power the Skylon spaceplane once it's all working, was completed.

The SABRE is being built to work as a jet or a rocket engine that can zoom aircraft at five times the speed of sound or blast into Earth's orbit at 25 times the speed of sound. Using the engine an aeroplane could fly to anywhere on the planet in under four hours.

The benefit of SABRE for launch vehicles is the dual nature of the engine, which could lift the Skylon into the air from a runway like a normal aeroplane and then switch into rocket mode later, so there wouldn't be any need to ditch expensive fuel tanks or boosters mid-flight.

SABRE does all this by sucking in hot air at the front, chilling it super-fast to sub-zero temperatures in a heat exchange and then burning the pressurised oxygen with hydrogen fuel. Water vapour in the air threats the engine's operation by icing up in the exchange and rendering it useless. However, a frost prevention mechanism was tested as part of the European Space Agency's evaluation of the engine back in May last year and cleared as working.

The latest series of tests involved strapping the air-chilling technology onto a jet engine with a helium cooling loop to prove the aerodynamic stability and structural integrity of the motor as well as showing that the whole thing wouldn't vibrate too much and preliminarily assessing the cooling.

Reaction Engines said that the third and final set of demos would start next month, when the cooling would operate below -150°C.

The ESA again approved the tests and said the results looked promising.

"As of today, ESA does not foresee any technical reason why the current test programme cannot be successfully completed by autumn 2012," the agency added.

Willetts said the engine is a "potential game changer".

"Their SABRE engine already represents 30 years of incredible British R&D. It’s a remarkable world first, and the pace at which they're advancing illustrates the urgency of laying the appropriate groundwork now," he said. ®

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