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Hypersonic flight a step closer after revolutionary British hypersonic engine aces tests


The future of flight isn’t just supersonic, it’s hypersonic, and a new British hypersonic engine just aced its tests bringing it a step closer to commercial flight.


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Hypersonic planes, like the stunning Boeing concept I talked about recently, that can take passengers from London to New York, or anywhere else for that matter, in under an hour are a step closer to reality thanks to British technology after engineers at Oxfordshire based Reaction Engines successfully tested their hypersonic engine’s pre-cooling system that allows it to withstand the fierce temperatures associated with Mach 5 speeds of nearly 4,000mph.

Mach 5 is more than twice as fast as the cruising speed of Concorde and more than 50 percent faster than the SR-71 Blackbird aircraft, the world’s fastest jet-engine powered aircraft. But travelling at such an extreme speeds has been hard to achieve up until now because the extreme conditions cause the engine to melt with the air that enters the engine at Mach 5 reaching in excess of 1,000 degrees Celsius.


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Now though Reaction Engines has found a way to reduce that to -150 degrees Celsius in a 20th of a second, and that’s a breakthrough that even Elon Musk who’s trying to develop rockets that transport people around the planet in rockets at Mach 27 speeds would be proud of.


SABRE up close

“This is a major moment in the development of a breakthrough aerospace technology which has seen Reaction Engines’ precooler tested at Mach 5 airflow temperature conditions, smashing through previous achievements at Mach 3.3 temperatures and paving the way for hypersonic flight,” said Mark Thomas, chief executive of Reaction Engines.

The company tested the precooler on its Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine (Sabre),  a hybrid hydrogen air-breathing rocket that has been designed to be fitted on both commercial planes and spacecraft, that I’ve discussed before. The Sabre engine works by chilling the incoming air to zero degrees Celsius using tiny tubes of super-cooled helium with the captured heat then going on to be used to help power the engine. The team is currently trialling parts of the engine in Denver, Colorado, and hopes to begin test flights in the mid 2020s, before commercial flights in the 2030s.


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“The Sabre engine is one of the UK’s most exciting engineering projects which could change forever how we launch satellites into orbit and travel across the world,” said Chris Skidmore, science minister.

The latest test is the culmination of 30 years of work since Reaction Engines was founded in 1989 by three propulsion engineers from Rolls Royce, Alan Bond, Richard Varvill and John Scott-Scott, known as the “three rocketeers”.

Over the last four years Reaction Engines has raised over £100m from public and private sources and has secured investment from BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Boeing HorizonX. The company has also partnered with the RAF to develop hypersonic planes for the military as part of a two-year project.

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