Aerospace News, March 2019

Imagine boarding a flight which enables a journey from London to Sydney to take only four-and-a-half hours? One UK-based company is building an engine to power aircraft for hypersonic flight in the atmosphere. Reaction Engines has devised a unique rocket engine, named Sabre, that could allow aircraft to fly much faster than traditional jets.

Unlike jet engines, Sabre can also operate in a rocket mode outside of the atmosphere, and this could potentially offer the next generation of reusable space launch vehicles.

Jet engines of today are capable of powering a vehicle up to Mach 3, three times the speed of sound. The Sabre engine is reportedly capable of Mach 5.4 in ‘air-breathing’ mode, and Mach 25 in rocket mode for space flight, according to Reaction Engines.  It could also be scaled in size to provide different levels of thrust for different applications.

There are three core elements to the Sabre engine; the pre-cooler, the engine core that has a smart thermodynamic cycle to manage heat and fluid flow, and the thrust chamber situated at the rear. The firm plans to demonstrate each of these independently over the next four years, beginning with a high temperature test of the pre-cooler.

The core part of the engine has just gone through its preliminary design review. It has been signed off by experts at the European Space Agency (ESA), the review sets the stage for this central section of the Sabre engine to begin its testing phase. Why is the British space sector important?

Productivity in the UK’s space sector is nearly three times the national average for other sectors, and it has a skilled workforce that create £140,000 of value per person, according to the government.  It is an industry that is rapidly growing, and one that creates many economic opportunities and enables Britain to showcase its innovation capabilities, as the figures below illustrate.

The report: ‘Size & Health of the UK Space Industry 2018’ published last month by the government shows that, compared to the 2016 survey:

  • Income is up from £13.7bn to £14.8bn
  • Exports are up from £5bn to £5.5bn
  • UK space sector builds major parts for one in four of the world’s commercial telecoms satellites
  • 73% of organisations in the space sector expecting income growth over the next three years
  • 93% of organisations predict workforce to grow

“One of the great advantages of the Sabre propulsion concept is that it is totally modular from both design and operational perspectives” explains Richard Varvill, CTO, Reaction Engines. “Therefore it is possible to subject each of the key components of the engine to rigorous ground testing, which fully mimic the operational conditions the engine will face up to Mach 5 flight at 25km altitude.”

Achieving this speed goal is a challenge in managing temperature extremes. The crucial innovations of the sabre engine include a pre-cooler heat-exchanger that can take an incoming airstream of around 1,000C and cool it to -150C in under 1/100th of a second.

US regulators have grounded Boeing 737 MAX aircraft whilst accident investigators ascertain the cause of two accidents that took the lives of passengers and crew on flights from Indonesia and Ethiopia. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it made the decision to ground 737-8 and 737-9 MAX (737-MAX) models based on new evidence collected at the site where Ethiopia Airlines flight ET30 crashed on March 10 shortly after taking off from Addis Ababa.

“This evidence, together with newly refined satellite data available to us at the FAA this morning, led to this decision,” the FAA said in a statement.

It added that the grounding will remain in effect pending further investigation, including examination of information from the aircraft’s flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders, which were recovered on March 11 and have been sent to Paris, France for analysis.

A similar directive was issued on March 12, 2019 by the UK Civil Aviation Authority, which noted: “External reports are drawing similarities between this accident and Lion Air flight 610 on 29 October 2018 involving the same type of aircraft.

“Given the similarity of the two accidents, it has been decided that as a precautionary measure that all Boeing 737-8 MAX and Boeing 737-9 MAX operations in the United Kingdom should stop until appropriate safeguards are in place.”

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing said it has ‘full confidence in the safety of the 737 MAX’ but has recommended to the FAA the temporary suspension of the entire global fleet of 371 737 MAX aircraft.

“We are supporting this proactive step out of an abundance of caution,” said Dennis Muilenburg, president, CEO, chairman of Boeing. “We are doing everything we can to understand the cause of the accidents in partnership with the investigators, deploy safety enhancements and help ensure this does not happen again.”

Lion Air flight JT610 crashed on October 29, 2018, approximately 13 minutes after taking off from Soekarno-Hatta Airport in Jakarta with the loss of 189 lives. Ethiopia Airlines flight ET30 crashed around six minutes after taking off from Bole International Airport on March 10. Boeing, the FAA and US National Transportation Safety Board are assisting Indonesian and Ethiopian-led investigations into both accidents.

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