ESA agrees funding for revolutionary SABRE rocket engine

13 Jul 2016

The European Space Agency (ESA) has approved funding for a new rocket engine design that is being described as ‘revolutionary’, with plans to begin testing in 2020.

Rocket engine technology has not progressed much since the days of sending crews into space aboard NASA’s Saturn V rocket, and the ESA knows that, as we send more and more craft into space, innovation is essential.

That is why the agency has announced that it is to invest €10m in a British project designing a new revolutionary rocket called the Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE), developed by Reaction Engines.

Future Human

Compared with conventional rocket engines, SABRE uses atmospheric air in the early part of its flight to orbit before switching to rocket mode for its final ascent to space and has been in development for a number of years now.

Along with £50m in funding provided by the UK Space Agency (UKSA), the ESA’s contribution to the SABRE project will help it demonstrate the feasibility of other elements, such as the novel rocket nozzles, air intake design and thrust chamber cooling.

Use on Skylon spacecraft

There will also be efforts to review the overall SABRE design and figure out how to make it easier to manufacture.

However, the first main goal is to finally test the rocket design in a field test, scheduled for some time in 2020, with manufacturing of the design to begin in 2018.

So far, all that has been tested of SABRE has been the rocket’s pre-cooler, which chills the hot airstream entering the engine at hypersonic speed from 1000ºC to -150ºC in just 100th of a second.

If all goes according to plan, the SABRE engine could have significant implications for reusable spacecraft, so much so that they would be able to operate much like jet airliners of today.

One craft that has been mentioned as being the likely home of the SABRE is the Skylon spacecraft, which  will take off from conventional runways but fly into space with 15 tonnes of cargo or passengers on board.

“Reaction Engines and ESA have been working together since 2008 to make the SABRE concept a reality,” said the company’s director, Franco Ongaro.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic