I’m sure you’ve heard the one:what do you get if you cross a sheep and a spacecraft?Or what about:what do you get if you cross a plane and a spaceship?Well to see if you come up with the same answers as me, read on…
Over the years comic book illustrators and movie makers have imagined the most fantastic and often impossible vehicles for their characters or superheroes to be seen in.Years later, as our technology has greatly improved, by the most bizarre coincidences we often see a parallel between these old designs and new vehicles that have become a reality.Evolving from an undeveloped craft called Hotol from the 1980s, one such project that looks to be shaping up in this direction is today known as Skylon.
Early charcoal-coloured concept designs look like something Batman would keep in his Batcave.The Skylon is essentially a large missile-shaped fuselage with a couple of nose fins, tail fins, and small wing-like projections half-way along its length. They carry two sleek engines, fixed close to the body of the plane. Skylon’s components are not however being built in the cellars of Bruce Wayne’s mansion, but on the premises of Reaction Engines Limited, in Oxfordshire.
Known as an SSTO or ‘Single Stage to Orbit’ vehicle, this revolutionary plane will take off conventionally from an airport runway, then head vertically up, into space in one fell swoop.Its most likely function in the spaceflight market would be as a fast transport vehicle for depositing satellites outside the Earth’s atmosphere before returning to Earth and landing on a conventional runway.If successful, this British concept would obviously have great commercial potential, perhaps paving the way for many to fulfil a lifelong dream.The dream of entering space.
This futuristic plane’s unique ability to straddle two very different flights zones, the skies and outer space, is essentially down to one component. Its Sabre engines. In technological terms, this cutting edge engineering possesses a ‘heat exchanger’ that can not only super-cool scorching engine air temperatures enabling the space plane to travel five times faster than the speed of sound, but also can use the oxygen content of passing air while it flies in Earth’s atmosphere. This of course removes the need for the space-bound vehicle to carry a fuel load of liquid oxygen in an external tank like earlier designs. Remove the need for vertical take-off, and we could dispense with the expensive launchpad, so ingrained into our mind’s eye when we think about space flight.
It’s hard not to imagine some superhero sitting in the cockpit pushing a red button when we learn that on reaching the highest boundaries of Earth’s atmosphere, Skylon’s Sabre engines go into ‘rocket mode’, taking the plane’s occupant on into space. The Sabre engine’s landmark achievement is not only that it will be able to take a plane straight into space, but if Skylon becomes a reality, the world also will become a smaller place as flight times to anywhere would be reduced to four hours.
Although the plan has not as yet received the official stamp of approval, an ESA/UK government testing program could not find any major engineering difficulties with the design.Skylon developer Alan Bond who has been pursuing the concept since the 80’s, is confident that the project will come to fruition and make space travel easier.
So finally, to return to the start:what do you get if you cross a sheep and a spacecraft?The answer of course is:Apollo neck (try saying it out loud). And then, in answer to the second question: what do you get if you cross a plane and a spaceship? Well we both know the answer to this one. Without a doubt it is Skylon.
(The history of spaceplanes – winged spacecraft – is summarised in Space.com’s infographic)
Source SPACE.com: All about our solar system, outer space and exploration
(Article by Nick Parke, Education Support Officer)