Reaction Engines' precooler tech demo chills 1,000°C air in less than 1/20th of a second

Another step towards affordable space access for Brit boffins

Reaction Engines HTX Test Article
Reaction Engines HTX Test Article (pic: Reaction Engines)

Brit rocket outfit Reaction Engines has demonstrated its precooler chilling air in Mach 5 conditions in less than 1/20th of a second.

In context, Mach 5 is more than twice as fast as the Concorde's cruising speed and 50 per cent up on the SR-71 Blackbird.

The HTX test programme had previously run the precooler at temperatures of 420°C/788°F back in April, representing Mach 3.3. Mach 5 (or 1,000°C/1,832°F at the air inlet) is similar to what the gang expect to be seen by the Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE) during its air-breathing flight regime.

It's been a while coming. Reaction Engines was founded back in 1989 by three propulsion engineers from Rolls-Royce – Alan Bond, Richard Varvill and John Scott-Scott – after funding for the British Horizontal Take-Off and Landing (HOTOL) single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane was axed.

As well as snapping up £100m in funding over the last four years from the likes of BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Boeing HorizonX, the company also got the nod from ESA and the UK Space Agency to proceed with testing in March, following a review of the demonstrator engine core of SABRE.

Back then, programmes director Shaun Driscoll told The Register that the next step was to shove air at 1,000ᵒC through the precooler to demonstrate it running in simulated flight conditions.

Fast-forward six months, and the box has been ticked at the company's testing facility in Colorado, supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

While further tests are planned, the next major stage will be putting a complete SABRE engine core through its paces at the company's TF1 centre at Westcott, Buckinghamshire, in the UK.

That testing does not involve the precooler, of course.

Construction of the TF1 facility is complete and a commissioning process under way ahead of those all-important core tests. The Register has learned that the commissioning and testing phase would likely take between 12 and 18 months, meaning the core could be tested in 2020, or possibly early 2021.

In an industry notorious for delays and holdups, even 2021 would be impressive, as is the fact that the team has kept its 1,000°C 2019 promise.

The company would not be drawn on timescales past the core engine testing.

While its precooler tech has attracted the attention of the aviation giants seeking air-breathing jet engines capable of accelerating from zero to Mach 5, the dream remains affordable space access with aircraft-like horizontal take-off and landing and – whisper it – single-stage-to-orbit. ®

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