As much as we're excited by the ventures of Space X and Amazon in making travel into space and the transport of materials into orbit that much cheaper with their re-usable systems, they're not the only ones looking to revolutionise space travel. British company Reaction Engines has designed a new engine which it claims can operate as a jet engine and a rocket, interchangeably.
A single stage to orbit vehicle is the holy grail of re-usable space travel. Ditching the necessity to carry huge additional stages which are jettisoned (or perhaps landed safely in the case of the Falcon 9) would save a lot of money, resources and build time, but it's yet to be done successfully. Although the Space Shuttle offered some measure of a re-usable, multi-stage vehicle, it wasn't anything quite like what Reaction Engines is proposing.
Its design is able to operate as a traditional rocket engine and as a jet-turbine, letting it fly through the atmosphere, using the oxygen in the air as its oxidiser (instead of carrying hundreds of tonnes of liquid O2), only switching over to rocket mode and using onboard stores of O2 when the atmosphere thinned out.
It achieves this by supercooling air as it comes into the turbine, reducing its temperature to near-liquid (but not quite) levels, before funnelling into the turbine.
Although not as useful for sending heavy payloads into orbit, the conceptual space-craft that Reaction Engines has designed around its specialised engines would be able to carry reasonable payloads into orbit and return to Earth far more efficiently. They claim that it could cut the cost of travelling to low-Earth Orbit by a factor of 10.
In comparison, Space X's reusable first stage rocket would cut costs in half or perhaps a little further.
Reaction engines has further tests planned for its engine, but says that it will soon begin final designs for its concept space ship.
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KitGuru Says: This is a pretty interesting piece of technology as it shows real versatility. Being able to take advantage of the much more efficient travel of traditional aircraft with fixed wings would make even more savings in terms of fuel and materials over traditional space travel.