back to article UK rocket-botherers rattle SABRE, snaffle big bucks

UK rocket botherer Reaction Engines Limited (REL) has raised £26.5m from backers in the finance and aerospace fields towards development of its Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE). SABRE has stubbornly refused to leave the lab bench and, with ground testing of the engine core due to start in 2020, the cash injection …

  1. Chris Miller

    In case anyone's wondering why they chose Bucks, Westcott was (until the mid-90s) a secret government rocket development site with all sorts of test-stands and control rooms. The venture park now occupying the former WW2 airfield is already home to several developers of private sector rocket engines, including SABRE.

  2. werdsmith Silver badge

    Lovely memories of instrument flying using the Westcott (pronounced Wesco on radio) NDB.

    Other rocket test sites in UK include Spadeadam in Cumbria and High Down in the Isle of Wight, the latter has a lot of surviving structure to explore.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Spadeadam may or may not have a lot of surviving structures too, but no one ever goes to look because it rains too much...

  4. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    "Spadeadam may or may not have a lot of surviving structures too, but no one ever goes to look because it rains too much..."

    Yeah I drive past regularly and see it signposted off the A69 but I don't think I've ever seen any vehicles use the turning.

  5. Mips

    NOX

    Forgive my ignorance but air plus fuel and high temperatures equals NOX. Yes? How is this good?

    Spadadam might be wet but has more of a problem with snow. However the last time I was there it was very much a military site. Eintrit verboten. It is also full of snakes.

  6. &rew
    Mushroom

    Re: Spadeadam

    I did a little work out at Spadeadam about ten years ago. A huge test site, and they were doing all sorts of stuff there. We were there testing methods of sealing gas leaks in operational gas lines. Spadeadam is where they blow up gas pipes to make sure the fracture doesn't propagate faster than the depressurisation wave. It is also used to do other explosive tests, and fire suppression. It is/was an amazing place, full of pyrotechnics and the people who love them.

    As for surviving structures, there were large concrete test pads and blast walls, but since it is still used for testing, and is in the middle of a military base, there won't be much that most could go and see.

    I'm sure there are still the occasional booms and plumes of smoke rising through the drizzle. Icon seemed appropriate.

  7. werdsmith Silver badge

    Re: Spadeadam

    Spadeadam is also the place where Top Gear launched their Reliant Robin Space Shuttle rocket.

    https://youtu.be/pJdrlWR-yFM (from 8 minutes in this clip)

  8. nematoad Silver badge
    Unhappy

    That's good, but...

    We see this time and again in history.

    Britain develops new technology and someone else comes along, takes what we have found, commercialises it and makes a killing. Look at the Comet, the first jet airliner. A brilliant project that was damaged beyond repair by design flaws that allowed Boeing and others to take the lead and look where we are now. Then there's computing. Colossus was years ahead of everyone else, and yet where is the British computer industry today? Nowhere. I could go on and on.

    It seems as if we are an inventive nation but when it comes to making money out of our discoveries and inventions we are nowhere to be seen.

  9. steelpillow Silver badge
    Boffin

    Re: That's good, but...

    This time round, both of the original 1980's HOTOL backers, B.Ae and R-R, are now back on board. There are also at least two venture capitalists (aka "investment houses") in the new deal. So Boeing and DARPA have some stiff competition right from the word go.

    As for jet airliners, the German company Blohm & Voss had a project lined up for the moment WWII ended - if it had gone the other way they'd have been a decade ahead of the 707.

    But I do agree about computers - great names like Mullard, Ferranti, Marconi and ICL should not have been squashed into the ground.

  10. DNTP Silver badge
    Angel

    Re: That's good, but...

    SABRE has already been stolen from you guys and successfully commercialized for use by one of the most famous companies in Mexico. I am of course referring to SQUAD and their Kerbal Space Program SABRE knockoff, the RAPIER (Reactive Alternate Propellant Intelligent Engine for Rockets). Then it was ripped off again by myself, personally, in the USA, to produce the JASPRE (Joint Alternate-Sourced Propellant Rocket Engine) for my KSP mod.

    Sorry for stealing your stuff Britain, I didn't mean to hurt you that much, if you're in Boston I'll buy you a coke.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: That's good, but...

    But I do agree about computers - great names like Mullard, Ferranti, Marconi and ICL should not have been squashed into the ground.

    Cough cough ARM cough cough. Ok, they're owned by Softbank these days, but otherwise it's an all British affair.

    Saw a Ferranti badge PC clone once, long ago. Ferranti and Marconi got absorbed into what's now BAE.

    On the quiet Britain does very well in other areas - the overall size of the aviation industry is larger now than it was in its "heyday" back in the 50s and 60s. We make the valuable bits, rather than the whole aircraft.

    I also like to think of Britain as having the most advanced and successful space policy of any nation. Having dabbled briefly with developing a launcher, we quickly gave that away to the French (who have done very well with Ariane), forgot all about manned flight and settled down to the highly profitable business of make commercial satellites. The government investment made in Portsmouth and Stevenage back in the early 1980s to build satellites has got to count as one of the most cost effective space programs by any government anywhere. OK, in no way was it planned like that, but the end result has been very lucrative.

    I hope Skylon / Reaction Engines meet with success, both technically and commercially. Turning up late to the launcher business, even if only as a founding member of a multi-country-multi-company partnership, with a fully resuable, fill-er-up-and-go space plane would be deeply satisfying.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Satellites

    The business in Stevenage, Pompey and even Guildford might be good at the moment but come a couple of years time I expect we will be hearing of layoffs all round. European customers will by from within the EU due to a dictat from Brussels. All part of the punishment that the EU will give us for the next 30 years because of our temerity to reject the EU Hegemony.

    Enjoy it while you can people.

  13. Daggerchild Silver badge
    Holmes

    Re: That's good, but...

    Fiver on Britain cracking the engineering problems, Russia suddenly flying a prototype (that explodes) then pretending they didn't, US Military stealing it, and pretending they aren't, US Business launching a patent broadside to capture it, stopping anyone making it, whereupon China starts mass producing it.

  14. Paul Crawford Silver badge

    Re: Satellites

    The main "punishment" the UK will get is a result of stupid politicians and those who voted from them. You don't need to punish someone who is beating themselves so effectively.

    But otherwise you probably are right in terms of future job losses, just not in terms of the real reason.

  15. This post has been deleted by its author

  16. David 164

    Re: That's good, but...

    It be UK developed it and make it work, US sulks and ban it from it airspace, Chinese tries and copy it

  17. Lars Silver badge
    Happy

    Re: That's good, but...

    "I could go on and on".

    I know you will go on and on for the rest of your life.

    But we would have computers and jet airliners totally regardless of England, civilization did not start in Britain, hopefully it will not end there either.

    I would like to help you but I am afraid you are beyond help.

    I have hope in the new generation of Brits who understand that innovations are, and were, made all over the world, not only in Britain. Companies come and go, errors are made and inventions tend to go where there is capital for the purpose.

    Perhaps it would help you if you manged to come to the conclusion that Britain is part of the world and not the whole world.

    And please do not pollute the minds of your children.

    I give you some credit, however, for writing "an inventive nation" and not the "most world leading inventive nation in human history" or something worse.

  18. Kernel Silver badge

    Re: That's good, but...

    "Then there's computing. Colossus was years ahead of everyone else, and yet where is the British computer industry today?"

    Arguably one of the most important light bulb moments leading to modern computing was down to Lyons and their extensive chain of tea shops.

    They realized that computers could not only work on straight maths problems, but could also be used to assist with solving business problems, like how do you bake and distribute fresh cakes and scones nationally, on a daily basis, with minimum wastage and lost orders.

    The Leo series of computers they designed and built to work on this and Lyon's other general business processes (payroll, accounting, etc) were quite innovative for their time and it's unfortunate that the initial lead this gave the UK in commercial computing was never followed up with adequate government encouragement.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Satellites

    The business in Stevenage, Pompey and even Guildford might be good at the moment but come a couple of years time I expect we will be hearing of layoffs all round. European customers will by from within the EU due to a dictat from Brussels. All part of the punishment that the EU will give us for the next 30 years because of our temerity to reject the EU Hegemony.

    It doesn't work that way. It takes a very long time to setup facilities of that sort (people are the problem, they're hard to recruit), I seriously doubt Airbus would even begin to think about closing them down. The EU might seek to impose some punitive taxation, but commercial realities for Airbus are likely to force some real-politik thinking in the French and German governments.

  20. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

    Re: That's good, but...

    we would have computers and jet airliners totally regardless of England

    That wasn't the point he was trying to make. His point was "we have all these good ideas and then totally fail to capitalise them".

    More of a moan about the UK's lamentable socio-political setup than a boast about "we invented all the stuffs".

  21. The First Dave

    Re: That's good, but...

    Are you trying to suggest that a Septic didn't quite understand the Queen's English?

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Satellites

    Probably some French silo in Toulouse will see Brexit as a convenient excuse to in-house more of the work, that more than Brexit difficulties will probably do the most harm.

  23. Lars Silver badge
    Happy

    Re: That's good, but...

    "Colossus was years ahead of everyone else".

    No it wasn't, you find this about the Colossus:

    "Colossus was a set of computers developed by British codebreakers in the years 1943–1945 to help in the cryptanalysis of the Lorenz cipher. Colossus used thermionic valves (vacuum tubes) to perform Boolean and counting operations. Colossus is thus regarded[2] as the world's first programmable, electronic, digital computer, although it was programmed by switches and plugs and not by a stored program.".

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colossus_computer

    But then you also find Konrad Zuse:

    "The Z3 was an electromechanical computer designed by Konrad Zuse. It was the world's first working programmable, fully automatic digital computer.[1] The Z3 was built with 2,000 relays, implementing a 22-bit word length that operated at a clock frequency of about 5–10 Hz.[2] Program code[3] and constant data were stored on punched film.

    The Z3 was completed in Berlin in 1941.

    Thanks to this machine and its predecessors, Konrad Zuse is often regarded as the inventor of the computer."

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Z3_(computer)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konrad_Zuse

    Now compare the pictures and think again, who was years ahead.

    What I don't know is if the Germans are moaning as much as you and telling porkies because, after all, the German computer industry isn't that stellar either.

    See there is a world outside Britain.

  24. soulrideruk Bronze badge

    Re: Satellites

    I love the way you are so ashamed of the fact you fucked up by voting us out you have to hide as an anonymous coward while you still try and make out your fuckup is somehow a good thing.

    Sums up the Brexit vote nicely....

  25. nematoad Silver badge
    Thumb Down

    Re: That's good, but...

    @ Lars

    It would appear as if someone not only got out of bed on the wrong side but also, like Worzel Gummige, forgot to put on their thinking head.

    An ad hominem attack is no answer to the points I was trying to make. What you seem to have failed to grasp is that I was not claiming that Britain is solely responsible for all the great discoveries, inventions and developments in the world. The point of my post was that the UK is very good at coming up with clever new ideas but pitifully poor at turning them into a source of revenue.

    As for the state of my children's minds that is irrelevant. They are long grown up and now responsible for the moulding of their own children's characters and minds.

    You may gather from the above that I am annoyed at the tone of your reply, and you would be right. When I was at University I was trained to attack the other person's ideas not them. It seems as if this idea has somehow passed you by.

  26. Lotaresco Silver badge

    Re: That's good, but...

    " Mullard, Ferranti, Marconi and ICL should not have been squashed into the ground"

    Mulllard - the investors sold all their shares to Philips in 1927

    Marconi - merged with BAe

    Ferranti - collapsed after an enormous management cock up of buying a pig in a poke

    ICL - sold off to Fujitsu by a government too bone idle to work out what else to do with the company

    Only ICL was "squashed into the ground" in that list.

  27. Voland's right hand Silver badge

    Finally, a piece of space news on the 12th of April

    There are dates like 20th of July, 12th of April and 4th of October that should not be forgotten.

    Especially on The Reg. End of the day it is supposed to be a tech rag.

  28. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    "may be a while before Gyimah will see spacecraft powered by REL’s technology blasting off"

    Not as long you might think.

    AFAIK the existing money gets them through the ground test phase.

    This money (and note the 2 VC companies who did not say how much they have put in) may be enough to get them the "Flight Test Vehicle" built. It's initial goal is to fly the test engine through the air and past the air breathing to rocket transition. The last major difference between SABRE and a conventional jet or rocket engine. It only needs to run long enough to reach steady state. Say 10secs after transition, before engine shut down and a glide back to ground.

    BTW AIUI this would make the FTV the first reusable hypersonic test vehicle since the X-15.

    Now if they designed suitable "hooks" into the structure there could be several customers who would like to fly experiments on such a vehicle. Obviously REL's needs come first and it may not be possible but it's an intriguing idea. If there was an extra X Kg available (or could be made available if RELs instrumentation was removed perhaps).....

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Are these stable? There is already too much sabre rattling going on at the moment as it is.

  30. Daedalus Silver badge

    Big wup

    Getting to Mach 5 is 20% of the way to orbital speed. For the other 80% you're going to be dragging the air breathing part of the engine as so much dead weight. This is just another Big Idea project, like cargo airships, that looks sexy but doesn't add up.

  31. John 98

    jw@resthaven.org.uk

    Agreed you are carrying some extra engine up, but you've cut the oxidant load by at least 20%. I don't pretend to know much, but it sounds a good trade off. And if you only need one engine instead of three (one stage to orbit), I imagine that's good too (even if said engine is a complex beast).

  32. Paul Crawford Silver badge

    Re: jw@resthaven.org.uk

    Also you have used less fuel in the initial stage with maximum launch mass and highest air resistance. I suspect that leads to a huge increase in payload/cost ratio.

  33. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    FAIL

    Getting to Mach 5 is 20% of the way to orbital speed.

    Wow, you're powers of observation are astounding.

    Actually it's more like 21% but what you've missed is that during that period it's average Isp is 6.6x that of the best available viable rocket propellant (not the classic but unworkable LH2/LF2/Lithium)

    In addition to the oxidizer coming from the air its also pushing the other 80% inert reaction mass out the back IE the N2. And in this game more mass --> more momentum.

    That Isp buys you the luxury of not needing paper thin tank walls (which is what VTOL SSTO usually comes down to) and the wings handle most of the gravity losses since the vehicle is always more or less horizontal from takeoff.

    So you get a design that a) Needs tough but within the SoA structural fractions (not unobtanium) b) Robust to survive multiple uses from full reentry with full payload (which killed the idea of a reusable F9 US) and c) Does so with a payload fraction like that of a normal TSTO ELV, historically impossible for VTOL SSTO's, and more so for rocket only HTOL vehicles.

  34. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    "but you've cut the oxidant load by at least 20%."

    REL estimate that an all rocket Skylon would carry 100 tonnes more LOX (it's already carrying about 160 tonnes)

    Basically that shifts the whole balance.

    Too much weight, too little Isp --> mandatory feather weight structures --> impossible to make orbit.

    Again it's not just "Not carrying the O2" it's Isp==3000secs. not 380sec (the SSME at takeoff)

    It's an old cliche that "The rocket equation is steep." That high Isp lasts long enough to make all the difference

  35. hammarbtyp Silver badge

    Re: Big wup

    Getting to Mach 5 is 20% of the way to orbital speed. For the other 80% you're going to be dragging the air breathing part of the engine as so much dead weight. This is just another Big Idea project, like cargo airships, that looks sexy but doesn't add up.

    Well done sir in showing on your back of a fag packet calculation, something that the combined engineering resources of the western world has failed to consider <SARCASM>

  36. harmjschoonhoven
  37. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Boffin

    Re: ground test

    That's called a "Pulse jet."

    It's not anywhere close to SABRE's cycle.

    One of the key design drivers for SABRE was that it must generate thrust from 0 Km/h.

    No catapults (which the V1 used). No sleds. No high pressure gas injection.

    BTW A pulse jets thermal efficiency is pretty poor. IOW it's fuel consumption is quite high.

  38. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

    Re: ground test

    OK - let's see that fly out of the atmosphere...

  39. The Nazz Silver badge

    OK, i'll ask.

    Is it curved like that so it can fly straight at a precise altitude?

    Where've the icons gone?

  40. AdamT

    Re: OK, i'll ask.

    I met some of the Reaction Engines team at a conference a few years ago and I did ask that. I can't quite remember the precise reason but I think it is so that there is some down vector to the thrust whilst the air flow is still in line with the fuselage. Perhaps this compensates a bit for the smallish wings? Once you are out the atmosphere then all that matters is that you can align the thrust vector with the centre of mass.

  41. SkippyBing Silver badge

    Re: OK, i'll ask.

    'I met some of the Reaction Engines team at a conference a few years ago and I did ask that.'

    That is essentially how I remember it after asking the same question at Farnborough a couple of years ago!

  42. This post has been deleted by its author

  43. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

    Why the excitement?

    They've given them £26.5m. That's about the price of a decent house in the suburbs of London. In terms of investement in rocketry, it's NOTHING.....

  44. ArrZarr Silver badge
    Joke

    Re: Why the excitement?

    Because the company making it are British and in the Private sector. This means that the £26.5M will pay for many biscuits and cups of team while the boffins continue their work.

  45. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    "£26.5m. That's about the price of a decent house in the suburbs of London. "

    You might be surprised what a company can accomplish, when it's not encumbered by the endless cost tracking of cost plus contracts.

    Quite a lot in fact.

  46. Milton Silver badge

    Good news for once

    Hugely encouraging news for a nice change! REL, with the Sabre concept, are talking and doing real science, real engineering, with real goals, and right now offer arguably the world's most practically realistic option for SSTO spaceplanes.

    It has saddened me that Virgin's pitiful nonsense in the desert has earned so much publciity and investment over the years, when it is little better than "space flight" stunting for rich fools, while REL have had to struggle in the shadows doing the real work.

    Hopefully that changes. While Branson's empty marketing bollocks is aimed at selling "Ooh look I'm a Astronaut" merit badges to egotistical twerps (perhaps the same kind of idiots whose frozen corpses decorate the slopes of Everest)—and with luck will never get far enough to start killing punters, whatever the benefits to the gene pool—the money put into REL has a strong, totally plausible probability of flights to orbit reaching commercial airline standards of safety and reliability.

    I know people once said the same about Shuttle, but let's be honest, that was a fatally compromised POS, kludged-together firework, before it ever left the ground. The original designs had promise, but after politicians had wreaked their budgetary havoc and Nasa management played their lethal games ... a dreadful and tragic waste of time, money and lives.

    The Sabre engine is not just a great concept, it's showing every sign that it could actually work. If you don't get excited at the thought of regular, affordable flights to orbit—able to operate from airports—there's always the option of a four-hour trip from Heathrow to Sydney. Even Economy might be tolerable ....

    I have no connection with REL, but wholheartedly recommend anyone interested to go see their website and understand the tech. It's impressive stuff. Read before you dismiss it as just more pie-in-the-sky. They might actually pull this off.

  47. I&I

    Re: Good news for once

    It’s all innovation. Power to all of it.

  48. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    "Branson's empty marketing bollocks is aimed at selling "Ooh look I'm a Astronaut""

    Actually not even that.

    They are not "Astronauts," that's the crew.

    They are "Spaceflight participants"

    While you may despise them the fact remains quite a lot of people put serious money down for tickets for this.

    I'd have said Skylon could be described as the next logical step up. If $500k gets you sub-orbital what's full orbital worth?

    Which I'm pretty sure the BO (Beardie One) would have been pretty enthusiastic about.

    Sadly, reading between the lines, any contacts between REL and VG have not gone well.

  49. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Even less oxygen for humans to breathe...

    ...thanks air breathing engines.

  50. oldcoder

    Re: Even less oxygen for humans to breathe...

    As far as that goes, rockets tend to use oxygen for the oxidizer...

    Guess where that comes from?

    Yup. AIR.

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