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The Great British Space Age: Tackling the satellite backlog

Joseph Flaig

Reaction Engines is building technology that could create revolutionary spaceplanes (Credit: Reaction Engines)
Reaction Engines is building technology that could create revolutionary spaceplanes (Credit: Reaction Engines)

In July, the government named Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands as the location for the UK’s first ever spaceport.

It was hailed as the start of the ‘Great British Space Age’ – but, in truth, a host of innovative companies has been pushing the UK space industry to new heights for several years. Now, they are perfectly placed to take advantage of the new spaceport. We spoke to firms behind some of the most inventive, audacious and exciting engineering in a sector that is ready for lift-off.

Read part one, on satellite technology pioneer Oxford Space Systems, here.

Read part two, on the UK firms opening the door to space, here.

Read part four, on how the spaceport in Sutherland will boost UK industry, here.

Solving the satellite backlog

Skyrora

Satellites were once the preserve of government agencies and telecoms companies, but not any more – a proliferation of smaller spacecraft and private launches has put orbit within reach for many more research organisations and small firms. This has ‘democratised’ space, the narrative goes, but it has also created a backlog of small satellites waiting for launch. 

Skyrora hopes to address this very modern problem with a heritage solution. The Edinburgh-based manufacturer has taken inspiration from the British Skylark and Black Arrow rockets of the 1950s-70s to build its own launcher, which it aims to test in suborbital flight next year and in orbit by 2021.

Like the Black Arrow, the Skyrora rocket will use hydrogen peroxide and kerosene as propellants. Hydrogen peroxide is particularly suited for the UK because it is stored without cryogenic chilling, says the company, making it ready for responsive launches during any breaks in poor weather. A spokesman for Skyrora says the company is in negotiations about flights from the Sutherland spaceport, as well as other potential vertical-launch sites in the Western Isles and Shetland.

The green rocket

Orbex

The effects of climate change might not always be clear at ground level, but an orbital viewpoint can quickly reveal the changing colours of melting ice or the long brown plumes of smoke from a forest fire. Climate monitoring is a major focus for UK space start-ups, but the sector itself – with tonnes of polluting fuel per flight – is hardly the most eco-friendly.

Recently awarded £30m to develop launchers for the Sutherland spaceport, Orbex could change that. The company says its Prime launcher will use bio-propane, which cuts carbon emissions by 90% compared to traditional hydrocarbons. It also promises a “novel reusability concept” and a zero-shock staging system that leaves no orbital debris. 

In a company statement, Chris Larmour, chief executive of Orbex, calls the new technology low-mass, low-carbon and says it could help tackle the launch backlog for small satellites.

Super-cool spaceplanes

Reaction Engines

To say the air in front of a Sabre engine at Mach 5 (1.7km/s) will be hot is an understatement – as it compresses, it will reach 1,000°C. One-twentieth of a second later, the air will be -150°C thanks to Reaction Engines’ ultra-lightweight heat exchanger. The precooler has thousands of thin-walled tubes filled with helium, providing a high surface area with low weight and rapidly absorbing heat. To prevent water vapour from freezing and building up at such low temperatures, the Sabre – Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine – will inject methanol. 

Harwell-based Reaction Engines hopes to test the cooling system at its US operation in Colorado this year. It believes the pre-cooler will be a “key enabler” for the Sabre, a combined jet and rocket engine which could help create a new generation of single-stage spaceplanes capable of Mach 5.4 in the atmosphere and Mach 25 in space. 

One concept, the Skylon spaceplane, has been “a little bit of a distraction” in the public eye from the company’s engine development, says a spokesman. The firm is considering “a number” of concepts, and will speak to vehicle developers after testing of Sabre.


Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
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