Work begins on UK rocket facility

A new design of rocket that could change the way we travel into space is being developed by a British firm, and work has just begun on a UK facility that could begin testing it before the decade is out.

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A simulation of how the testing facility at Westcott will look when finished.
Credit: Reaction Engines Ltd

Construction has begun on a UK-based testing facility for a British air breathing rocket that could change the way we travel into space.

The SABRE (Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine) propulsion system is being supported by the European Space Agency and is designed to ‘scoop up’ air from the atmosphere during the early stage of its flight into orbit.

This air acts as as an oxidiser allowing the rocket fuel to ignite and would prevent the need for carrying an onboard oxygen supply. It could also create a single-stage-to-orbit spacecraft that doesn't require ejection of empty containers as fuel is used up, the way the Soyuz rocket does. 

As the SABRE is making its way out of Earth's atmosphere, incoming air must be cooled from 1,000°C to -150°C within one hundredth of a second in order for it to be used as an oxidiser. In 2012, ESA oversaw testing of a prototype pre-cooler device for the rocket.

SABRE is being developed by British firm Reaction Engines Ltd, with €10 million invested by ESA supplementing £50 million from the UK Space Agency. 

This week, construction began on the new test facility at Westcott Venture Park in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.

It will include a propulsion test stand that can accommodate various test engine configurations, an assembly building, workshops, offices and a control room. Support facilities will enable configuration changes to the engine to take place on-site.  

The site was originally built as a base for training bomber crews during World War II, but after the war it became a government facility for research into rocket propulsion. The Blue Streak missile and Black Arrow satellite carrier rocket were both tested at Westcott.

Testing of the SABRE engine is due to commence in 2020, with testing of the engine’s pre-cooler system expected to take place in 2018.

“The opening of this new test facility marks an historic moment for the European aerospace industry and for the UK research and development in rocket propulsion,” says Franco Ongaro, ESA Director of Technology, Engineering and Quality.

“This facility enables the ground test of the engine cycle, opening the way to the first test flights, and to a new era."


 

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