Reaction Engines and Virgin Galactic explore technologies for space access


Virgin Galactic and Reaction Engines are exploring how they could develop a spaceplane by combining technologies in areas such as propulsion and cooling, as part of a UK Government-funded project.

The project, “Combining innovative UK air-breathing propulsion with US airframe capability for space access” was selected for a Phase 1 award under the UK Space Agency’s new International Bilateral Fund and started last month.

Reaction Engines, which selected Virgin Galactic as a partner for the project, will look to develop horizontal launch vehicle concepts that use air-breathing, hypersonic propulsion technology.

It will also explore how the companies can combine their capabilities, potential use-cases, and development paths for a horizontal launch vehicle.

Virgin Galactic, which was founded in 2004 by businessman Richard Branson, last month launched the world’s first commercial passenger service for suborbital flights after spending decades developing and testing the spacecraft and necessary technology.

Reaction Engines has been developing technology for air-breathing propulsion systems in various forms since the 1980s, to enable high-speed flight and cheaper access to space compared to conventional rocket propulsion.

The companies’ latest joint R&D program is split into phases. The first four-month scoping phase is due to be completed at the end of November and is being funded with a £75,000 (US$94,000) UK Government grant, with an equivalent contribution from the RE and VG.

The following £3 million (US$3.7 million), 12-month Phase 2 will then build on the technical areas identified in Phase 1, funded by a £1.5 million (US$1.8 million) UK Government grant with the remainder split between the US and UK firms.

Patrick Rennie, business development manager at Reaction Engines said, “Virgin Galactic is a spaceplane developer and operator, Reaction Engines develops high-speed engine technology. There are areas where we can combine the two technologies, one of those areas is atmospheric high-speed flight.”

The operational setup for Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital passenger service is to air-launch a rocket-propelled spaceplane from a mothership, which then flies to the Karman line before descending to land on a runway.

Virgin Galactic, which flew its first commercial flight in June, plans to initially operate a single flight per month and then expand its service using a fleet of air-launched, Delta spaceplanes that operate at a reduced cost. The first test flight of the Delta spaceplane is expected in 2025.

The company’s current generation spaceplane, VSS Unity uses a hybrid rocket engine that is manufactured in-house. The HRM 2000 runs off a solid hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB) fuel and uses nitrous oxide as an oxidizer.

Reaction Engines is continuing to develop its SABRE (Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine) for high-speed aircraft of more than Mach 5 and horizontal space launch applications. In addition, the company has sought other applications with external partners for the pre-cooler technology developed for SABRE. The company is currently working with the US Air Force to modify fighter jet engines to boost their top speed.

“Our pre-cooler technology can expand the envelope of current engine technology significantly,” said Rennie. “But there is a huge difference between the technology and engineering needed for a sub-orbital vehicle and an orbital one, even outside of the propulsion system. Thermal management of re-entry for example.

“The project’s initial focus is on how we can mix our technologies and expertise together. It will allow us to explore technology areas beyond our individual core capabilities.”

Steve Justice, senior vice president, Spaceline programs and engineering at Virgin Galactic said, “We are seeing the emergent benefits of what the USA and UK can achieve in the joint pursuit of space access and operations. This collaboration with Reaction Engines, studying advanced airframe-propulsion integration concepts, contributes to building a legacy.”

The Reaction Engines and Virgin Galactic project is one of 32 to receive a share of a £20 million tranche of funding from the UK Space Agency’s International Bilateral Fund last month. The Bilateral Fund aims to strengthen the UK space sector through international industrial partnerships.




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Ben has worked as a journalist and editor, covering technology, engineering and industry for the last 20 years. Initially writing about subjects from nuclear submarines to autonomous cars to future design and manufacturing technologies, he was editor of a leading UK-based engineering magazine before becoming editor of Aerospace Testing in 2017.

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