back to article ESA: British Skylon spaceplane seems perfectly possible

Good news for spaceplane fanciers today, as a new report issued by the European Space Agency (ESA) says that "no impediments or critical items have been identified" which could block continuing development of the radical British-designed "Skylon" orbital craft. Many Reg readers will be familiar with the Skylon, modern-day …


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  1. Marketing Hack Silver badge

    Why do we tempt fate so??!!

    You Brits are going to name your robotic spaceplane "Skylon"? Are you going to give it a cold, menacing synthesized voice that says "By your command" whenever you order it to do anything? And then of course the MoD is going to want a nuclear-capable military version with "enhanced autonomous decision-making". And when the resultant monstrosity gains self-awareness and starts bombing us from orbit, we're going to find that you guys forgot to build it with an "off" switch!

    I guess it's time to build my survival bunker.....

  2. Mike Richards Silver badge

    Only the beginning

    It'll be followed by the 'Mysteron' whose voice will have you soiling your pants right across the Atlantic.

  3. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    @Mike Richards

    I once worked for a guy for whom English was not a first language.

    Imagine a Mysteron who swears a lot.

    *Very* unnerving and quite sinister.

  4. BozNZ


    whatever happens, the goalposts have moved forward and at worst at least there will be some R&D and engineering happening in the UK for a change.

  5. trashbat

    I'm sure it's a lovely spaceship

    But what's it like to write with?

  6. lawndart


    @ Marketing Hack

    Can we help it if some Merkin takes a perfectly good British word and applies a negative connotation to it? I suppose we should be used to playing the bad guys.

    @ Anntoin

    Forget Elite, try the Orbiter space sim:

    You can even download Skylon for it and try it out. Then use it to construct space stations...

  7. Anonymous Coward

    I can see the future.....

    ...and in about 30 years time, Lewis Page will be lamenting a colossal UK/EU waste of money on this project and asking why on earth we had to build our own super-ambitious space vehicle when we could have just bought some poxy US rocket instead (which he will then produce some contrived and dubious evidence to argue is superior in every respect, and that this should have been obvious 30 years ago).

  8. This post has been deleted by its author

  9. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    This document is likely to be *critical* for fund raising. It's a major milestone

    Before it RE is a smallish company with a big idea.

    After it RE are a smallish company whose idea has been *thoroughly* investigated by competent auditors with *no* vested interest in it working. The auditors have looked at even the *secret* bits and concluded they work.

    This is the sort of hard nosed scientific deep cavity inspection that large scale investors *must* see in order to start signing cheques.

    It is an area where companies have failed because the few groups of people qualified to be able to make a judgment on someones capability in reality have a vested interest in them *not* succeeding.

    In the US it's known as the friend-at-NASA syndrome.

    Note that in a recent interview Elon Musk stated the total investment to date for Spacex was c$800m. Had he had to borrow *all* that money through the financial markets his bill would have been a *lot* higher and this is despite the fact that the technology is relatively (let me just repeat that word *relatively*) pedestrian, although its *implementation* is very advanced.

    RE's net worth is roughly 1/133 the size.

    I wish them every success. I believe that if they do get to market their estimate of 30 customers will go down in history with Thomas Watson Jnr's assessment that the world market for mainframes *might* reach 14.

  10. JeffyPooh Silver badge



    Requirements := Requirements + Surviving A Bird Strike*

    * Canada Goose, fired directly into the frost-proof helium-powered super-beer-cooler thingy at Mach 6-ish. If they can handle that, then that's A Very Good Thing (TM).

  11. BorkedAgain

    Canada Goose?


  12. Captain Thyratron

    Not that big a deal.

    I'm pretty sure most birds don't very much like the parts of the atmosphere where this thing is supposed to go that fast.

  13. annodomini2 Bronze badge


    You just want the contract to build the cannon

  14. John Smith 19 Gold badge


    Funny you should mention that.

    I wrote to RE a long while back on that and a few other points.

    They kindly wrote back and explained that they *had* considered it and the design is *more* resistant to it than a conventional turbo fan or jet (I point out that's provided you defrost the goose first). They were a *lot* smaller then.

    In hindsight it would be a lot like a bird strike on an SR71 nacelle.

    Firstly there are 2 engines on each side so worst case would give a 50% loss of thrust balance. Secondly I'd guess the SABRE core site *directly* behind the entry cone. A bird strike would slide down the cone and hit the inlet but by pass the engine core, possibly clobbering part of the "Spill ramjet" (I'd guess they can isolate sections of the feed piping on this) before being flash broiled by the superheated steam on the way to the exit.

    Hitting the inlet heat exchanger matrix *would* be a very bad day for all concerned but I *suspect * you'd have to fire the goose at *just* the right entry angle to do so. In these cases I think civil aircraft certification bodies start breaking out probabilistic risk assessments, with the odds (of a mishap) lengthening as the inlet closes on ascent.

    99 times out of a 100, SABRE cooks the goose. 1 in a 100 (or rather less), the goose cooks the vehicle.

  15. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Most comsats incorporate that final stage as part of *their* components

    The last rocket stage might *point* them roughly into the direction and a bit of delta V but the bulk is usually provided by something called an "Apogee Kick Motor".

    Historically it's been a big solid but for best performance you make the storeable propellant tanks on your satellite oversize. if the rocket has done a good job you get a *free* satellite life extension since you can keep it in its orbital box (comm sats are confined to a rectangular section of their orbit but they drift about it. Like a slow motion game of pong)

    Note although RE show satellite launch from a Skylon in a stable *orbit* it has a 2300Km cross range. A sub-orbital launch could put up a *very* big sat pointed in the right direction and with as much delta v as a regular launcher, leaving the AKM to finish the job.

    However a separate "tug" could be a *very* useful investment. Staying in space (ideally being re-fueled there), not taking up cargo pay space or mass on *every* flight it would deliver the idea of space as a "service" rather than a piece of hardware you *have* to acquire to fly your mission (in the way you have to buy a rocket to do so now).

  16. Bronek Kozicki Silver badge
    Thumb Up


    They published a study of such "tug", it's called Fluyt

  17. The elephant in the room


    If every human chips in 2 quid we can start building this thing tomorrow!

    (checking pocket for loose change)

  18. annodomini2 Bronze badge


    Every UK resident chips in £20 a year

    They claim a 10 year development schedule

    Allowing for inflation

  19. John Savard Silver badge

    Not So Terrifying

    Right now, what the world needs is a new way to get astronauts to and from the ISS, so the fact that this vehicle is unmanned limits its importance. However, that is perhaps the only way it could be developed privately; a manned vehicle would need government funding, in the big way that only the United States might do.

    However, in addition to the sculpture from the Festival of Britain, the name "Skylon" has another positive association, as the name of a tower in which many a honeymooning couple has shared a restaurant meal - in Canada, overlooking Niagara Falls.

  20. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    @John Savard

    "Right now, what the world needs is a new way to get astronauts to and from the ISS, so the fact that this vehicle is unmanned limits its importance. "

    Not really.

    Uncrewed <> *incapable* of carrying passengers.

    It's a subject that RE have looked at as you can see in this report.

    The unmanned thing may be a bit of a red herring. But as the UK never built a crewed rocket they never worked out a man rating requirement either. Note the Shuttle is *not* crew rated either. The aspects it does not deal with are met with "waivers."

    I will observe that *not* being mated up to *huge* solid fuel boosters (which cannot be shut down in emergency) and a large tank with foam shedding issues ("mitigated" but not AFAIK *eliminated*) should put it head and shoulders above the Shuttle in the risky-features-we-cannot-do-much-about stakes.

    More to the point would be how the US and/or Europe view it's crew worthiness. However if there were *other* places to go who did not care about such distinctions that would not matter.

    Like an orbiting hotel for example.

    However RE are *very* cautious about market projections as they *have* to be given the budget they need. This is why they are *very* cautious talking about *anything* but communications satellite business, which is *the* paying segment.

    I will point out that a vehicle designed with a *very* small number of fluids (*the* key reducer of support costs on *several* NASA studies), basically LOX,LH2, hydraulic fluid and water, requiring *no* mating of components and with *no* on board crew *should* be able to substantially lower the price per Kg to orbit, given the propellant bill is roughly $1.68m. #

    The bill for the Shuttle's expendable tank is about $1m, but the tank itself is roughly $12m and it's single use. However that $1.68m does not count topping up the water tanks and replacing they pyros (not cheap. The Shuttle has several 100 on board, along with their ignitors, each at about $400).

    Unlike NASA RE has *no* standing army of people it's politically *required* to employ (and no desire to acquire one).


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