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Skylon Spaceplane Design Passes Key Review

Roblimo posted more than 3 years ago | from the single-stage-to-orbit-is-our-grail dept.

Space 136

gbjbaanb writes "A revolutionary UK spaceplane concept has been boosted by the conclusions of an important technical review. Skylon is a design for a spaceplane that uses engines that work as normal jets near the ground and switch to rocket propulsion in the upper atmosphere. The concept means the plane will not have to carry as much fuel and so will not need disposable stages. It is estimated (by its developers) that the Skylon will drop the cost of delivering payloads to orbit from $15,000 per kilo to $1000."

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Hate to rain on the hype parade (4, Informative)

elrous0 (869638) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227178)

This spaceplane is still in the concept phase. They're not even planning to build it until the 2020's. Right now it's all just fund-raising and hype. All this review says is "Well, it COULD work."

In fact, this thing has apparently just the latest version of a spaceplane that has been in the development stage since 1982 (no, that's not a mistake--1982), and has already went through quite a bit of government and private money, with little more to show for it than some concept art and promises. Add to this the fact that they're emphasizing cause-du-jour selling points like "the environmentally-friendly green rocket" in their promotional literature, and I'm a little skeptical.

More power to them if they can build it though. The real first test will come when they're supposed to actually build a test engine this summer. Deliver something to me in the real world that actually works, and you'll get my attention.

Re:Hate to rain on the hype parade (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36227328)

Yeah but this stuff is like Viagra to Space Nutters. I can hear the cumshots already.

Re:Hate to rain on the hype parade (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36227416)

Nerds sure stink. Thats why they don't have girlfriends.

Re:Hate to rain on the hype parade (1)

Creepy (93888) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227496)

What they're saying in this article is that they've solved the problem with the earlier engine, and this is hardly the first time an earlier technology has been abandoned and then picked up successfully - see scramjet. Speaking of scramjet, that theoretically can reach near orbital velocities without a rocket engine, so I think this is entirely within the realm of possibility (and incidentally, one of the major hurdles with those is cooling).

The article even says they have focused on the engine and the rest of the craft has yet to be developed, so I wouldn't expect test craft until at least 2020. If it were NASA, I wouldn't expect test craft until 2050, so good thing they aren't in charge.

Re:Hate to rain on the hype parade (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36227682)

The article even says they have focused on the engine and the rest of the craft has yet to be developed, so I wouldn't expect test craft until at least 2020.

"A soft-tooled preproduction prototype (a system demonstrator) will fly in 2016 but this will not be orbital. Our assumption is that it will fly between Kourou and NEAT but that is not fixed. [[NEAT is the North European Aerospace Test Range, Europe's largest overland flight test range, located in northern Sweden]]" -- Mark Hempsell, Future Programmes Director at Reaction Engines. (From: http://www.rocketeers.co.uk/node/1375 [rocketeers.co.uk] )

Re:Hate to rain on the hype parade (1)

WindBourne (631190) | more than 3 years ago | (#36230064)

Well, first off, most of this WAS developed by NASA AND DOD. Back in the 50's and 60's, and then again in the 80's. It was found that material science was not good enough. It is likely that NASA will offer up contracts for working with this in the next couple of years. And my guess is that they are MUCH further ahead on this.

Re:Hate to rain on the hype parade (3, Insightful)

GooberToo (74388) | more than 3 years ago | (#36228322)

Certainly nothing wrong with a healthy dose of skepticism but what you're offering as a negative is actually a resounding positive. Basically you're saying, a well researched and investigated design is a really, really bad idea. That's ignorant. You seem to be under the impression that design engineering and review is free. That's ignorant too.

More power to them if they can build it though. The real first test will come when they're supposed to actually build a test engine this summer. Deliver something to me in the real world that actually works, and you'll get my attention.

This has been under active research and development for some time now. They are far from alone in understanding current limitations or in their desire to address it by creating a hybrid engine design.

Again, skepticism is good and all, but contrary to the tone of your post, you've resoundingly confirmed they are working hard and following a good path.

Re:Hate to rain on the hype parade (1)

elrous0 (869638) | more than 3 years ago | (#36228390)

No, I'm saying that a design that has sucked money for 30 years without producing anything more than some concept art is probably just a money sink.

Re:Hate to rain on the hype parade (4, Insightful)

GooberToo (74388) | more than 3 years ago | (#36228640)

I honestly don't know much about the specifics of this project, but what you're describing is actually extremely common. Accordingly, you need to prove how what you're describing is so abnormal, to justify such a position.

Thus far, it sounds like a sparsely funded project which seems to be steadily moving forward on the merits of the design and the technical advancements which are required to justify progression of the project.

Realistically, sudden advancement of the project knowing full well the engines represent a massive technological hurdle, would flag a money sink. As is, unless you can indicate other reasons, it sounds like its progressing at the speed of dependent technology - which sounds like the exact opposite of a money sink.

Re:Hate to rain on the hype parade (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36230786)

No, I'm saying that a design that has sucked money for 30 years without producing anything more than some concept art is probably just a money sink.

After actually talked to the people at Reaction Engines, the guys behind the engine design, at Farnborough air show a couple of years ago, I am fairly impressed by them. Judging by there test firing videos and the quality of their promotional material, they are not a big budget money sink as you seem to imply. They are more like a backyard outfit really passionate about their design, and they do seem to know their stuff.

What they have here is a simple and light air-breathing rocket engine that is vastly more efficient (in terms of specific impulse) than conventional rocket engines. This engine will take you from 0 to Mach 6 with decent fuel consumption, which is no small feat! So the goal could be a Mach 5 airliner, or to be bolted on a single stage to orbit a rocket plane which switches to SCRAM jets once it reach above Mach 6.

It might turn out that there's something better out there, or it just doesn't work, but I am sure glad that these people are working on this and wish them luck.

Re:Hate to rain on the hype parade (3, Interesting)

Archibald Buttle (536586) | more than 3 years ago | (#36229630)

Skylon is effectively a development of the HOTOL spaceplane project that was proposed by Rolls Royce and BAE way back in 1986, and was cancelled by the UK government in 1988 - I'm not sure where this 1982 date you mention fits in.

From what I understand the funding for this project has, since then, been very minimal, and only comparatively recently have they managed to attract the attention of ESA. From what I've read ESA only got involved because some real tangible hardware has been produced by Reaction Engines.

That real tangible hardware is in the form of coolers. That's arguably the most difficult part of their engine design, and the part that had doomed the HOTOL project. ESA seems to think that Reaction Engines are making good progress and that nothing about the SABRE engine, on which Skylon relies, is unachievable. So there is some more to this than concept art and promises.

They are aiming for ESA... (2)

Ga_101 (755815) | more than 3 years ago | (#36229992)

Ariane 5, until recently, was the most successful commercial launcher.
However, the rocket is getting a little long in the tooth and things are hotting up with Space X getting into their stride.

While TFA states otherwise, Reaction Engines Ltd are most likely aiming for the forthcoming ESA review and investigation into a replacement for Ariane 5. It would be a long shot, both the UK's dismal track record in funding space flight at a national level and France's well proven track record are major hurdles. But I suspect this would be Skylon's best bet, nobody else has the spare billion or 5 to spend on the project.

Re:They are aiming for ESA... (2)

damburger (981828) | more than 3 years ago | (#36230852)

They are not aiming for ESA specifically. They are aiming to sell Skylons to anyone who will buy them. Their promotional animations sometimes show rows of Skylons with different tail art, showing their intention that multiple operators will be running their space plane.

Ariane 5 does not have to worry about competition from SpaceX. Its primarily a French launch system, and the French government isn't afraid to dump money into their high-tech industries. They will simply subsidise it to compete with SpaceX, force ESA payloads to use it etc. until they can make a more competitive replacement (Ariane 6 is mooted to be a smaller, cheaper vehicle) One private rocket does not a market make.

Please get your facts straight (3, Interesting)

damburger (981828) | more than 3 years ago | (#36230768)

This is Skylon, not HOTOL, so no it hasn't been in development since 1982. Different vehicle, different engine (the original one was classified by the UK government).

The statement 'they are not planning to build it until the 2020's' is flat out false. They are planning to have it operational in 2020. This may be optimistic, but what you said does not accurately reflect their statements.

Environmentally friendly is not a touchy-feely issue either; if spaceflight is going to go from long-term experiment to routine flight, its emissions need to be taken into account. Concern has already been raised about the effects of releasing particles from hybrid motors at high altitude. Right now it doesn't matter, but IF we are entering an era of mass spaceflight, it will.

A review isn't the same as the test, no, but I can tell you from first hand experience that ESA engineers are not easily impressed. They will have given REL a proper grilling before coming out and saying that they think this concept is viable.

Whilst I have no doubt the mostly US-based /. audience will probably not have much respect for ESA, please bear in mind that despite a budget half the size, and a lack of manned capability for political reasons, its cooperates with NASA on engineering matters as an equal these days.

Wait (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36227184)

No one's thought of this til now?

Re:Wait (1)

AntDaniel (553730) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227864)

There was a British (and possibly with later backing and involvement from ESA) project in (iirc) the late 80's early 90's called Hotal, it was a low orbit space plane, mainly focused on passenger travel. It didn't get much beyond the drawing board) As the Skylon project is from ESA I wouldn't be surprised if Hotal had an influence on this.

Re:Wait (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36228762)

Read the article. It's the same people.

Skylons? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36227214)

The Skylons were created by man.
They rebelled.
They evolved.
There are many copies.
And they have a plan.

Or are just making shit up as they go. It's kind of hard to tell.

Re:Skylons? (1)

teh kurisu (701097) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227444)

In the image, it actually looks a lot like I imagine Iain Banks' Culture ships to look. Combine that with the news that robots are developing their own language [bbc.co.uk] to talk to each other, and real life starts to look a little like Excession.

Land of the Lost (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36228218)

Re:Land of the Lost (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36228798)

Given that Reaction Engines is run by a bunch of Brits, I suspect that this is the influence:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skylon_(tower) [wikipedia.org]

Re:Skylons? (1)

GooberToo (74388) | more than 3 years ago | (#36228398)

Or are just making shit up as they go. It's kind of hard to tell.

Then you didn't watch the show. Very clearly, they made shit up as they went.

And BTW, +1 funny!

Re:Skylons? (2)

Mercano (826132) | more than 3 years ago | (#36229026)

They had a plan. Nuke the humans for orbit. After they found out that is in fact NOT a sure-fire plan, they were just winging it.

No, it's SKY-lons (2)

Toe, The (545098) | more than 3 years ago | (#36229224)

Skylons aren't just Cylons pronounced funny. They're Cylons created by Skynet.

Seriously, that has to be the most dooms-day-ish, worst-conceived name ever.

Re:Skylons? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36229240)

Are they made of meat?

space junk (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36227220)

Now was can get 15x as much space junk for our $

Re:space junk (2)

spaceplanesfan (2120596) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227490)

The exact opposite.

1. Second stages don't remain in orbit.
2. Skylon can (like shuttle) can bring payload back (and its likely to be able bring back more that it can put in the orbit).
3. For GEO launches which skylon can't do they suggest a reusable stage that will be fueled by cheap skylon flight, go to GEO (or more liekely GTO, and back). So no junk at all.

In fact at these prices, such stage could even be used to bring stuff back from GEO.

We are nerds. Such attitude I see for "it will never work" is just inacceptable.
"It probably won't work' it ok, but 'It never will work' isn't OK. Thats what was said about all technologies that do work now.

Re:space junk (1)

c6gunner (950153) | more than 3 years ago | (#36230260)

"It probably won't work' it ok, but 'It never will work' isn't OK. Thats what was said about all technologies that do work now.

No, that's what was said about all the ideas which never worked (and that number is FAR higher than all the technology we currently have). It may have been said about some of the technologies which we have now, but I don't recall anyone saying "IPv6? That'll never work!", or "64 bit CPU? That'll never work!".

Huh? (1, Funny)

Black Parrot (19622) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227286)

the Skylon will drop the cost of delivering payloads to orbit from $15,000 per kilo to $1000.

If you weigh your payload in pounds, do you have to pay in Euros?

Re:Huh? (1)

idontgno (624372) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227318)

African or European payload? And does the payload consist primarily of coconuts?

Re:Huh? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36227736)

Have they considered gripping it by the husk?

Call it the Sy-lon space plane (1)

OzPeter (195038) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227296)

And get funding from the Sy-Fy channel!

Re:Call it the Sy-lon space plane (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36227384)

Only if it wrestles part time as the Skylonater.

Re:Call it the Sy-lon space plane (1)

yarnosh (2055818) | more than 3 years ago | (#36228196)

Why would a professional wrestling channel care about space flight?

Re:Call it the Sy-lon space plane (1)

0123456 (636235) | more than 3 years ago | (#36228608)

Why would a professional wrestling channel care about space flight?

Wrestling in Space! It's the new must-watch show!

Re:Call it the Sy-lon space plane (1)

tnk1 (899206) | more than 3 years ago | (#36229510)

Can you imagine the moves in zero-G? And the new space-based names?

I always thought that Martian Manhunter sounded more like a wrestler name anyway.

PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (2)

toygeek (473120) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227302)

I couldn't help but to read the article with interest and a healthy dose of Moller Skycar Skepticism. The concept art work looks like something out of Popular Science or Popular Mechanics. The "details" of the engine include "Esa's technical staff have witnessed this "secret technology" on the lab bench and can confirm it works." Wow, something that works in the lab. I'm not impressed.

Furthermore, it promises to cut the launch cost of payload from $15k/kilo to $1k/kilo. I call BS. That's just marketing hype. Cutting it by 20% or 30% would be revolutionary. Cutting it by a few hundred percent is just pipe dreams by people looking for VC capital.

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36227398)

Cutting it by 20% or 30% would be revolutionary. Cutting it by a few hundred percent is just pipe dreams by people looking for VC capital.

Especially considering cutting anything by "a few hundred percent" leaves you with a less-than-zero number...

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36227452)

They will pay us to put things in space! I'm going to go buy some old phone books cheap.

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (1)

RobertLTux (260313) | more than 3 years ago | (#36228172)

they are promising to cut the cost to 7 percent of current
(1/15=~ 6.66667%) and it would in "marketing math" be a 1500% cut so that i think would be a cut of many hundreds of percent.

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (1)

Yvanhoe (564877) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227438)

Furthermore, it promises to cut the launch cost of payload from $15k/kilo to $1k/kilo. I call BS.

So do I, or there is more to this spaceship than the "work as a plane the first kilometers" concept. The 10 or 20 kilometers that you can save by using this kind of design is really a small fraction of the distance to cross. It can make you save a few percents of fuel, which is interesting, but divide the price per 15 ? Quit dreaming. It will be 5% and you will be grateful for it !

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (1)

elrous0 (869638) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227540)

Maybe it runs on fairy dust.

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36230624)

And unicorn farts.

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (1)

0123456 (636235) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227802)

The 10 or 20 kilometers that you can save by using this kind of design is really a small fraction of the distance to cross. It can make you save a few percents of fuel, which is interesting, but divide the price per 15 ? Quit dreaming. It will be 5% and you will be grateful for it !

Fuel is a negligible cost for any modern launcher. Skylon's benefit is not reduced fuel use but that it's a fully reusable SSTO, which means you don't need to build a new one for each flight and you don't need to assemble multiple stages before you can take off; you just fill it up and tow it to the runway.

I still think the development costs are way too high to justify, but the idea seems sound.

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (1)

jbengt (874751) | more than 3 years ago | (#36230732)

Fuel is a negligible cost for any modern launcher.

Fuel is a huge cost for a modern launcher - not in the direct cost of buying the fuel, but in the impact on costs of the need to carry the fuel.

Skylon's benefit is not reduced fuel use . . .

the benefit is the reduction in fuel weight, which reduces structural weight, both of which reduce propulsion required, which reduces fuel required, and so on.

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (1)

0123456 (636235) | more than 3 years ago | (#36230914)

Fuel is a huge cost for a modern launcher - not in the direct cost of buying the fuel, but in the impact on costs of the need to carry the fuel

Fuel is cheap, fuel tanks are cheap. Generally speaking, reusing the engines a few times will save you far more money than reducing the amount of fuel you require, and increasing the launch rate will dramatically reduce costs even if you have to throw them away every time.

The spaceflight industry would be celebrating if we'd actually reached the point where fuel was a significant part of their launch costs.

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (5, Informative)

rufty_tufty (888596) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227890)

"The 10 or 20 kilometers that you can save by using this kind of design is really a small fraction of the distance to cross"
Distance isn't the problem for getting to orbit, velocity is.
By running as a plane you don't have to burn thrust to support the weight of the craft and fuel, you can accelerate up to Mach 5 (as they plan to) using the atmosphere to support you. That's a truly massive gain, for reference the first stage of the Saturn V got you up to just over mach 6. Now I don't know what percentage of their fuel they burn to get to that speed but to not have to support that weight with thrust for such a long period is a huge gain. Remembering as well that during this phase they are air breathing too which is another massive gain.
Fine you say mach 5 is 1/5th of the way to mach 25. so at best they've saved 20%, better but still not amazing.
Not quite because you get a weird multiplier effect, because (when you are at say mach 5) you have accelerated the fuel you carry to mach 5 so it effectively has more energy that when it was at rest on the ground. If you run the numbers for a multistage rocker you'll find that they can't reach orbit unless you take this effect into account. Trying to find a good source for this, will hopefully reply to this later with said source...

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (1)

Yvanhoe (564877) | more than 3 years ago | (#36228482)

Interesting, I never considered the part about speed. Indeed, that is to be taken into account.

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36229544)

Another point about reducing cost on the lower part of the ascent, is that that is where you are both deeper in the gravity well, and flying with higher friction.

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (1)

rufty_tufty (888596) | more than 3 years ago | (#36228578)

Nope i appear to be wrong about that last point or at least can't find any sources.
Sorry.

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36229876)

You were not entirely wrong and your perfectly right that this is an energy problem.

The fuel would not have "more energy" in the way that it would burn hotter or give more thrust, but I think the point is that it now is flying at mach 5 and does not have to be accelerated from zero.

This is the real reason multistage rockets are so frickin huge, you do not only have to accelerate the payload into orbit but also all the fuel not yet burnt and the oxidizer also. And I think this is your "multiplier effect".

The point is well illustrated by the Saturn V, it spends all of the first stage just to reach mach 6-7, and that stage ALONE is easily heavier than stage 2, 3 and the payload combined.

I have not seen the numbers but would not be surprised if the potential fuel savings with a spacecraft that can accelerate to mach 5 as an airplane would be more like 50-60% and not 20%.

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (1)

cruachan (113813) | more than 3 years ago | (#36230022)

Well, there's another point which you might be confusing things with - you're accelerating to Mach 5 though a lot of dense atmosphere, but once you're up at the heights this will be at Mach 5 then there's far less atmospheric resistance so the amount of energy required to accelerate further will be much less. I don't see how increasing the speed of fuel in itself can increase the amount of energy it contains (seems nonsensical to me) but you'd certainly get a lot more out of the fuel you do have.

By way of a thought consider the size of the rocket that launched the astronauts back off the moon - 1/6 gravity but far, far smaller than a saturn 5

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (2)

peragrin (659227) | more than 3 years ago | (#36229128)

The Big savings comes from not having to rebuild the engines after every use. Sure the shells of the SSRB's are reusable but refilling them is really expensive and rebuilding new after so many launches also adds considerable expense. It is the propulsion method that makes getting into space expensive. You have to carry lots of it and then launch that too. Reusing engines is difficult(the main part of shuttle down time is rebuilding the main engines every time)

Anything that can do a fairly practical SSTO, will cut costs by an order of magnitude. Even if it includes a small rocket booster for the last few miles.

Rockets burn most of their fuel during the earlier stages as they have to lift the most weight and get it up to speed too. If you can get them up to mach 5-6 and up a ways the amount of rocket needed is drastically reduced.

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (1)

marcosdumay (620877) | more than 3 years ago | (#36229774)

As somebody already pointed, you are negleting the speed. Other thing that you are negleting is that the fuel need increases exponentialy with the energy needs, and the energy needs are comprised of speed diferential, height diferential (in a gravity field), and aerodynamic loses. Those 10 to 20 kilometers are where neraly all the aerodynamic loses are, and don't forget, it is an exponential increase.

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (1)

mbkennel (97636) | more than 3 years ago | (#36230790)

"The 10 or 20 kilometers that you can save by using this kind of design is really a small fraction of the distance to cross. It can make you save a few percents of fuel"

It can save you a huge percents of heavy oxidizer. You don't count progress by distance but by velocity and how much of the draggy atmosphere you've escaped. And that you don't need complex staging. And the overall design and flight trajectory minimizes structural risks and loads.

I read the ESA review. As an engineering review for an aerospace project, it's the equivalent of a rave review.
It's the best idea I've ever seen for space launch.

Not entirely surprisingly, the plane looks very very much like a SR-71. After all, the laws of physics are the same as they were in 1961.

[quote]The "details" of the engine include "Esa's technical staff have witnessed this "secret technology" on the lab bench and can confirm it works." Wow, something that works in the lab. I'm not impressed.[/quote]

In real aerospace engineering, getting something to work in the lab is a big achievement. The people doing this have been working on it for decades and most of it is known, standard technology.

Why is everybody in a "News for Nerds" site so grumpily anti-intellectual. Kvetching about people who really work hard for a very long time to solve very hard problems.

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (1)

teh kurisu (701097) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227478)

It's a BBC technology article. You weren't expecting anything else, were you?

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (1)

toygeek (473120) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227652)

Yes, but then I realized this isn't slashdot anymore. It's slashdigg.

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (2)

amliebsch (724858) | more than 3 years ago | (#36228160)

Falcon 9 has it down to about $4700 already, Falcon Heavy will likely have it close to $1k.

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (1)

damburger (981828) | more than 3 years ago | (#36230886)

Evidence for that?

Re:PopSci != Tech Breakthrough (1)

Plekto (1018050) | more than 3 years ago | (#36229626)

Well, It's hugely expensive to run, but if all you need is fuel and some ablative undercoating repairs every few flights(assuming a liquid-fueled rocket or scramjet), it's perhaps at the extreme outside, a few million per launch as opposed to $54 million (Space X Falcon 1).

Remember, while most large rockets are in theory, reusable, it's really a matter of "recover" the hull and spend a huge amount of money rebuilding the thing to be re-used again.(Space Shuttle rockets for example)

Thunderbirds are Go! (1)

undulato (2146486) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227340)

etc. etc.

America : Number Four! (-1, Troll)

tekrat (242117) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227396)

I've been hearing about an engine that would use Jet/Rocket hybrid since the mid-70's. I believe it was even proposed for early concepts of the space shuttle. But NASA could never make it work.

NASA couldn't even make the Aerospike work either, and that was supposed to revolutionize space travel in the mid-80's.

So will all the brilliant minds at NASA and our defense contractors, they couldn't make anything work except for some really backwards solid-rocket boosters.

After we lost our German scientists, America went back to black powder and cannon to launch rockets.

And now, while the ESA is moving forward, America is jumping backwards even more, going back to 60's Apollo-era capsules. And that's after a long development schedule while we're piggybacking on the Russians.

*IF* (and that's a big if) the ESA can make this thing work, it will truly put us far behind the Europeans, the Chinese and the Russians. W00T! America Number 4!!!!

Heck, we might even be behind the Indians and the Japanese by then as well.

Our last Shuttle flight is July 8th. I'm marking that day on my calendar, as it marks America's official slide into 3rd world status. We are not the superpower we used to be, and as long as we're internally bickering over healthcare, abortion, and whether god controls the tides, we never will be a superpower again.

peak oil, here we come! (1)

Thud457 (234763) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227582)

the current fortune at the bottom of the page :

You'll wish that you had done some of the hard things when they were easier to do.

Re:America : Number Four! (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36227722)

You're really confused. "Going back" to capsules just means what everyone already knew; it's the best way to do it. It's like the wheel, thousands of years old and still valid. You're confusing progress in computers (which don't have anything to do with the real physical world) and physical reality.

"We are not the superpower we used to be, and as long as we're internally bickering over healthcare, abortion, and whether god controls the tides, we never will be a superpower again."

You think it's different anywhere else? You think throwing big tubes full of fuel into the air confers first world status to a country? What does that make Russia, India and China? Why don't you move there, since the only metric you seem to recognize is a childish fascination with rockets?

Re:America : Number Four! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36227824)

Why would it put us behind the Chinese and Russians?

Re:America : Number Four! (4, Insightful)

fotbr (855184) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227836)

A few points:

1) Everyone else is still using capsules. Don't see how going back to using one ourselves means we're now "behind" the others.

2) The shuttle itself is little more than a glorified, odd-shaped capsule. It still depends on rockets to push it into space; and it has to basically be re-built between flights.

3) You're neglecting the work done by companies in the US. NASA isn't all we've got. Sure, virgin galactic and the others aren't there yet, but they're a hell of a lot closer than this piece of marketing -- and that's ALL this piece is; they haven't made anything yet, much less a working anything.

Re:America : Number Four! (2)

Amouth (879122) | more than 3 years ago | (#36228282)

and on top of this being marketing - they pre-cooler is supposed to cool from 1000+c to -130c in a few feet and be able to do it for sustained flight? call me exceptionally suspect

Re:America : Number Four! (1)

rmstar (114746) | more than 3 years ago | (#36229644)

they pre-cooler is supposed to cool from 1000+c to -130c in a few feet and be able to do it for sustained flight? call me exceptionally suspect

I thought the same when I read about the project a few years ago. That figures sound insane.

Re:America : Number Four! (1)

FridayBob (619244) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227904)

I find this kind of talk depressing. All you seem to care about is whether you any your buddies (America) are ahead or not. Why not just be happy that human spaceflight is advancing? Must you be reminded that the ISS is an international endeavor? Spaceflight is something that we should all be doing together. That way we can achieve far more than any one country can on its own.

Re:America : Number Four! (1)

Grishnakh (216268) | more than 3 years ago | (#36228858)

That'd be fine if other countries were progressing really rapidly with human spaceflight, but they aren't; they're starting way behind where America was in the 70s. What have other nations been doing since we were walking around on the Moon? The Russians did some cool stuff, but it all got put on hold when their empire collapsed and has been crippled by funding problems ever since. The Indians haven't done much besides a couple probes, nothing with humans. The Chinese have replicated what we did in the late 50s/early 60s, and that's it so far. What have the Europeans done? A probe or two? One lame module on the ISS maybe? Do they have any lifting capacity at all?

I'd really like it if the other countries really were advancing with their space programs; then we could just laugh as America withers away into irrelevance, and the scientists and engineers in America could just pack up and move to those other places to find good jobs waiting for them there, and even better be able to live someplace where they're respected and have some prestige in their professions, rather than being surrounded by morons who worship sports and airheads like Sarah Palin, Glen Beck, and Barack Obama. But that's really not the case. It's probably going to take decades for the other nations to get where America has already been.

Re:America : Number Four! (3, Informative)

Picass0 (147474) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227984)

Space planes are not a new idea. The SR-71, while it never flew in space, was still considered by many engineers to be proof that a space plane was possible.

"...NASA couldn't even make the Aerospike work either..."
"After we lost our German scientists, America went back to black powder and cannon to launch rockets."

A gross characterization. Lockheed Martin made aerospike technology workable while developing Venture Star, a canceled successor to the Space Shuttle. They made three aerospike engines but only had the chance to test one of them (successfully) before the cancellation of the X-33 test vehicle. While the engine concept was sound there were budget issues, fuel tank failures, and political pressure to stay with the Space Shuttle.

http://www.aerospaceweb.org/design/aerospike/figures/test02.jpg [aerospaceweb.org]

Instead of pouring tons of cash into a 40 year of design like the Space Shuttle the US is embracing simpler, more affordable rocket technology. Commercial rocket launch companies like SpaceX can do it cheaper than NASA. They have a proven track record and are now building their first heavy class rocket.

For all the Space Shuttle's accomplishments it's initial purpose was to make the cost per pound of cargo cheaper, something it never did.

Re:America : Number Four! (1)

wagnerrp (1305589) | more than 3 years ago | (#36228246)

NASA couldn't even make the Aerospike work either, and that was supposed to revolutionize space travel in the mid-80's.

The X-33 failed because NASA couldn't get their composite fuel tanks to work, and with the additional weight needed for traditional metal tanks, they wouldn't be able to achieve SSTO. As I understand it, the aerospike itself worked great.

The flaw of the aerospike is the very thing that makes it work. It uses aerodynamic forces from the atmosphere to produce a continuously variable expansion ratio, and while it's not optimally efficient at any given altitude, it's pretty good at all altitudes. Because of this, it needs direct access to the atmosphere, and thus must be located on the exterior of a vehicle. For a toroidal aerospike, that means you can only have a single rocket motor. For a linear aerospike, you have to gang multiple in a row, which leads to a wide, flat, 'spaceplane' shape.

Single engine launch vehicles are fairly rare, with most modern launch vehicles involving multiple common cores, or a large core with multiple smaller boosters. Redesigning a launch vehicle to use a single engine would be a significant undertaking, and since most of the cost of a launch vehicle lines in the development and manufacturing, rather than the fuel, the only way it would be worth it to invest in an expensive new engine would be if it were recoverable and reusable for multiple launches.

Assuming you could pull it off, a reusable space plane would be a great way to accomplish the above. It would have to be far more robust than the shuttle, meaning you cannot require the engines be torn down, re-machined, and rebuilt from scratch after each run, and the thermal protection system would need to be something more traditional than the carbon carbon and ceramic tiles on that readily fall off and get damaged. Again, since aerospikes need to be in the airflow, you would not be able to put boosters or fuel tanks on the top and bottom. The angled side of a delta shaped object is not conducive to strapping things on either. All your fuel must be carried internally, which falls back to why that composite fuel tank was so crucial to the design of the X-33. The best you could hope for is you might be able to get away with some form of conformal drop tanks like you see on high performance fighters.

Re:America : Number Four! (2, Insightful)

Grishnakh (216268) | more than 3 years ago | (#36228744)

Our last Shuttle flight is July 8th. I'm marking that day on my calendar, as it marks America's official slide into 3rd world status. We are not the superpower we used to be, and as long as we're internally bickering over healthcare, abortion, and whether god controls the tides, we never will be a superpower again.

America really should never have been a superpower; it was an accident of history. The only reason America became a superpower is because of WWI and WWII; Europe was devastated in those two wars, and America got rich rebuilding them, as we were the only industrialized nation left standing (except maybe for Australia, but they didn't have much industrial capacity like America did).

Basically, we're a third-world country that won the lottery. We've never really had what it takes to be a technological power, as our culture prevents it. We'd rather watch sports than learn about science. Even way back in the 40s-50s, when public education was far better here than now, we couldn't even make our own rockets for our space program to compete with the Russians. We had to grab a bunch of Nazi rocket scientists from Germany and put them to work for us. Nowadays, we don't have a prayer. The only thing we're good at is shuffling money around, but being good at business doesn't make you automatically good at engineering and science, especially when those professions don't pay very well and aren't seen as very prestigious, despite the difficulty in getting degrees in those fields.

The best thing for smart Americans to do now (i.e., scientists and engineers) is to get out of the country before it collapses and hyperinflation happens.

Re:America : Number Four! (5, Insightful)

kevinNCSU (1531307) | more than 3 years ago | (#36229880)

America really should never have been a superpower; it was an accident of history. The only reason America became a superpower is because of WWI and WWII; Europe was devastated in those two wars, and America got rich rebuilding them, as we were the only industrialized nation left standing (except maybe for Australia, but they didn't have much industrial capacity like America did).

Yes, it was also an accident of Geography that America was full of natural resources, farm-able land, and room to expand. And an accident of politics and colonialism that led to America's freedom of speech and religion which was a big early draw for immigration. But yea, if you discount the massive natural resources, the great natural protective barriers of the Oceans, the political climate that cause immigration, the policies that kept her out of European wars as long as possible, and the huge industrial base is used to help win those wars, I don't see why America ever should have become a super power. I mean, it's not even the Country with the most letters in it's name.

One more thing... (4, Insightful)

Picass0 (147474) | more than 3 years ago | (#36229042)

>> "And now, while the ESA is moving forward, America is jumping backwards even more, going back to 60's Apollo-era capsules. And that's after a long development schedule while we're piggybacking on the Russians."

The Space Shuttle concept was designed in the late 1960. Aside from upgraded cockpit avionics much of the system is 60's era tech.

Take a position. Are we behind or not? Everyone is ahead of us (you say) yet the only other countries to launch men into space (Russia and China) have done so with capsules. China's capsile was a disposable single use system. The CEV is a re-usable system which finds close parity with the Soyuz.

The US using capsules again is an acknowledgment that strapping your vehicle and crew to the side of a rocket is more dangerous than placing them at the top. A capsule can be mission specific. A capsule can be redesigned much easier than modifying a space shuttle or place where a system wide impact study must be done. The Space Shuttle was a difficult system to upgrade for this reason. A capsule can have the latest system upgrades since it is self-contained. The Soyuz has gone through dozens revisions for this reason.

Aside from landing on a runway what was gained from the shuttle in a practical sense? Longer turnaround between missions? A small fleet a complex vehicles instead of a large inventory of simpler capsules? When safety is concerned, simple wins. The Russians launch men into space more often because they use a simpler system.

Re:America : Number Four! (1)

Gilmoure (18428) | more than 3 years ago | (#36229562)

Do we want to be a super power? Is this a good thing?

Drop thrusters and go to impulse (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36227442)

Engage!

It won't die! (1)

Karel Jansens (1063154) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227626)

HOTOL, it just won't go away.

They need to re-adjust their cost target (1)

frith01 (1118539) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227632)

http://www.spacex.com/press.php?page=20110405 [spacex.com]

Falcon 9 heavy will be $1k per pound in 2013 ( ok, $2.2k per kg )

Re:They need to re-adjust their cost target (1)

hattig (47930) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227766)

One of the aims of HOTOL was human payload, for ~2 hour low-orbit flights to Australia. I presume that this aim would still be there for Skylon. Not to mention that it presumably can also use existing airport infrastructure, which is a major advantage too. Of course, at $1000 a kilo we're looking at $100,000 per person per flight, but possibly the low-orbit flights don't need as much fuel as satellite launching flights as they don't need to achieve such a high orbit.

Anyway, they're targeting half the cost of Falcon 9, albeit much further down the line. This will drive competition and lower prices across the industry over the next twenty years.

Re:They need to re-adjust their cost target (1)

0123456 (636235) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227842)

Of course, at $1000 a kilo we're looking at $100,000 per person per flight, but possibly the low-orbit flights don't need as much fuel as satellite launching flights as they don't need to achieve such a high orbit.

A suborbital flight from London to Sydney requires going about 95% of the way to orbit, so the cost would be pretty much the same. If there was a viable market for suborbital transport we'd already have them, but the laws of physics prevent you from using it as a way to start small and build up to orbital flights over time... there's a big gap between suborbital tourism/science and orbital flight where costs increase significantly but the market doesn't.

supersize me? (1)

Thud457 (234763) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227952)

Of course, at $1000 a kilo we're looking at $100,000 per person per flight,

That's $320,000, American.

Re:supersize me? (1)

jpapon (1877296) | more than 3 years ago | (#36229464)

Damn, I don't care if you're American or not, at 320 kilos you shouldn't be going anywhere near that fast.

Re:They need to re-adjust their cost target (1)

0123456 (636235) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227776)

Falcon 9 heavy will be $1k per pound in 2013 ( ok, $2.2k per kg )

And that's before they start reusing the first stages.

Skylon's numbers used to look good, but if SpaceX can meet their claims then an SSTO needs to get down to more like $100 a pound to jusfify the development cost. Or find a big market for small payloads where SpaceX can't match the $1000 per kilo cost.

Re:They need to re-adjust their cost target (1)

hazydave (96747) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227908)

Yup... Elon Musk is on record as claiming that $1.1K per Kg is achievable in the foreseeable future.... presumably, whatever's the next cost reduction after Falcon 5 (the Falcon X platform, perhaps). SpaceX is already scaring the Chinese on costs, so they could definitely have an effect here.

As cool as the tech is here, it's clear that private companies are and will have a big impact. Especially with multi-government run agencies like the ESA, they're taking forever on concepts, which makes it unclear that, if they actually do ever produce, whether the new rocket/spaceship will actually be current, or saddled with the last 20-30 years of design-by-committee. There's something nice about the "just do it" approach that SpaceX is taking (ok, sure, they've been at it awhile too, but they do seem to be doing it).

Pick a lane problem (1)

Archangel Michael (180766) | more than 3 years ago | (#36228834)

I call the major difference between government and private ventures such as this the "pick a lane" problem. In Private, they typically pick a lane early on and stick with it until it fails. In government sponsored projects, they use multiple pathways approach, and fund them beyond their failure. This is the primary reason why Private Enterprise succeeds where government sponsored approach fails.

And if you look at SpaceX's approach, they picked a design early on, and have stuck with it. They are much closer to suborbital flight than anyone else. And they will get to full production while others are still in design mode.Right now, they are in beginning stages of getting certified for commercial flights. Government can't compete here, the approach is all wrong.

Skeptical without any numbers (1)

caseih (160668) | more than 3 years ago | (#36227744)

Though it certainly takes a lot of fuel and oxidizer to get a rocket through the thick lower atmosphere up to say 90,000 feet, it still takes a tremendous amount of energy to get from 90,000 feet and 3000-4000 mph to escape velocity of 17,500 mph. And that last bit would have to use oxidizer brought with since the air is quite thin at the edge of space.

From what I learned in physics class, the cheapest way to get through the thick atmosphere is to go straight up. Taking the airplane route consumes a lot more energy (several times more), though the hope is that the air can be used as an oxidizer so you don't have to carry O2. But I'm very skeptical that anything better than a rocket will ever be found, at least that uses chemical reactions as a means of propulsion.

Re:Skeptical without any numbers (1)

pe1rxq (141710) | more than 3 years ago | (#36228082)

They don't need escape velocity... they are aiming for low earth orbit.
Besides using the O2 as oxidizer they also have another benefit: the angular velocity you gain at low altitudes is cheaper (in terms of energy) than getting it at high altitude. Even for rockets they have to make a tradeoff between going up to avoid air and going sideways early on to actually reach orbit.

Re:Skeptical without any numbers (1)

amliebsch (724858) | more than 3 years ago | (#36228248)

You've got it wrong. Establishing an orbit is not about distance from the surface, it is about velocity. You could orbit the planet at 1 meter above ground, if it was round enough and airless - you'd just have to get enough velocity. Going "straight up" will do you no good at all without the velocity, because you're just going to fall "straight down" again. Watch a shuttle launch or a rocket launch - after a short time they roll over and point sideways, because they need to gain velocity. They don't go straight up either.

Re:Skeptical without any numbers (4, Interesting)

GooberToo (74388) | more than 3 years ago | (#36228488)

From what I learned in physics class, the cheapest way to get through the thick atmosphere is to go straight up.

That's only true for conventional rockets. The longer you remain in the lower atmosphere, you more rocket fuel you must carry. The more fuel you must carry, the larger the rocket you require. The larger the rocket you require, the larger the engine. The larger the engine, the more fuel you must carry. This is a nasty spiral simply because you obtain 100% of your lift from thrust.

With the skylon design, you are obtain a lot of your lift - from lift. Its only after you're passed through the lower atmosphere, where you don't get much lift and where you now need an oxydizer for your fuel, that you need to start a rocket engine. Thusly, they've side step a massive problem with traditional rockets.

Furthermore, its the first stage on traditional rockets which requires the most fuel to obtain orbital velocities. By using a plane's features, a massive weight burden (and associated size) is removed from the design.

Re:Skeptical without any numbers (1)

Archangel Michael (180766) | more than 3 years ago | (#36228896)

This is the same approach as Scaled Composite's White Knight approach. And they are well ahead of anything coming out of Europe. They are already testing prototypes while European version hasn't even started building a prototype.

Re:Skeptical without any numbers (1)

tarpitcod (822436) | more than 3 years ago | (#36229310)

The parent(s) are correct. Rocket launches are usually vertical and rapidly start 'pitching' the nose down so the flight is parallel with the earth. The main reason here is drag, but it's also important to understand that traditional bell nozzles are optimized for a specific atmospheric pressure (or lack thereof). That's why there has been so much interest in aerospikes (e.g. X-33)

A few comments about Skylon.

- Not hauling all that heavy oxidizer along is helpful. O2 is much heavier than H2 (See periodic table)

- The Specific Impulse of Jet engines is much greater than chemical rockets. The SSME's have an ISP about 1/5th that of a jet engine. Even the NERVA Nuclear Thermal Rockets had ISP/s about half that of a jet.

- You need to get to about 8 Km/s for orbit. The speed of sound from 10 Km to 30 Km is about 300 m/s. So you get:

A12/SR-71 (J57) was cruising at ~1Km/sec
Kingfisher (Marquard Ramjet) ~ 1.5 Km/sec

That still leaves you 7Km/s of velocity you need. If you figure the Sabre can get 2Km/sec of velocity, using atmospheric oxygen and then use the same engine (hint saves weight and cost) while burning on board oxygen it's pretty cool.

It's actually a pretty cool design, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if this technology hadn't already flown in a black project. The holy grail is a design that takes off horizontally and uses atmospheric oxygen as it accelerates and transitions through jet, ramjet, scramjet, rocket.

Re:Skeptical without any numbers (1)

CrimsonAvenger (580665) | more than 3 years ago | (#36230024)

Though it certainly takes a lot of fuel and oxidizer to get a rocket through the thick lower atmosphere up to say 90,000 feet, it still takes a tremendous amount of energy to get from 90,000 feet and 3000-4000 mph to escape velocity of 17,500 mph. And that last bit would have to use oxidizer brought with since the air is quite thin at the edge of space.

A couple of things:

1) Escape velocity (more properly, escape speed) isn't 17,500 mph.

2) Escape velocity (more properly, escape speed) isn't relevant to reaching orbit.

3) Given a speed of 4000 mph horizontally at 90K ft, mass ratio required to reach orbit would be around 4.5 (as high as 5.0 with relatively low Isp fuels, as low as 4.0 with high Isp fuels).

4) The second stage of the old Saturn V has a mass ratio of 13.25.

In other words, if you're starting at 4000 mph and above most of the atmosphere, getting to orbit is realtively trivial.

Also, it should be noted that the 13.25 mass ratio of the S-II stage of Saturn V pretty much puts paid to the argument that an SSTO is impossible, since that stage has a delta-V of 11000 m/s+ by itself. The trick isn't in building an SSTO, it's in making one practical - being able to carry a useful payload would be nice, for instance.

two engines (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36228932)

Could use two separate engines, one jet and one rocket. Bonus points for putting them on two planes and allow separation. Oh wait... that has already been done.

Eventually drugs delivered by space plane (1)

scorp1us (235526) | more than 3 years ago | (#36229070)

I think well get it cheap enough that drug lords from around the world will be able to deliver directly to homes by space plane. It sure beats subs/ultra-lites, and good old ground transport.

At $1000/kilo, isn't that acceptable transport fee for some drugs? (Assuming 100% success) These people are now constructing submarines!!

launch all vipers! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36229164)

We have received reports that a Skylon attack is underway.

Revolutionary? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36230448)

I'd hardly call the concept "Revolutionary". They messed around with similar concepts during the 70/80s, I've even seen concept sketches of a space shuttle with turbines attached to the sides. It simply wasn't considered near term enough at the time. And "precoolers" have been used on practically every rocket motor since WWII, the only real difference here is that they're adding another part to the precooler, the heat exchangers in the intake manifold instead of only around the reaction chamber. The only really new concept that I can figure is whatever "secret method" they're using to keep ice from building up on the intake heat exchangers (probably sonic/chemical/coating based). Don't get me wrong, I hope it works magnificently, but while I do believe they're the first ones to start fabricating the components, they're not the first ones to think up the concept.

Brought to you by the country that built Concorde (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36230902)

And the Harrier jump jet. Will American jealousy scupper this project too ?

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