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What Is the Skylon Spaceplane?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 21, 2024
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The Skylon spaceplane is a proposal by Reaction Engines Limited — a British company based in Oxfordshire — to build an orbital launch vehicle which could take off from a conventional runway, accelerate to Mach 5.5 using a turbojet engine, then close its air intake, switch operation to that of a rocket engine, and accelerate to typical orbital speed of Mach 23.

It would then release a 13 ton payload, reenter the Earth's atmosphere, and land again on a conventional runway. By using the SSTO (single-stage-to-orbit) approach, Skylon's designers hope to radically reduce launch costs and open up the high frontier to private enterprise. Skylon has not yet been built, but detailed plans have been created. Reaction Engines Limited is pursuing funding to build a prototype.

The most important and unique component of Skylon is its specially designed engine, SABRE (Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine). SABRE is an air-breathing, bi-modal engine fueled by liquid hydrogen. The engine uses a pre-cooler before vaporizing and expelling fuel, allowing low-weight alloys to be used in construction, in turn increasing the overall payload-to-fuel ratio. The incoming air is used as an oxidizer, decreasing fuel mass. At around Mach 5.5, the incoming air starts to become too hot to be used usefully. The intake valve is shut off and the rocket engine is ignited, taking Skylon the rest of the way.

The Skylon design has a length of 82 m (269 ft), about 40% longer than the Space Shuttle. It has a fuselage diameter of 6.25 m (20.5 ft) and a wingspan of 25 m (82 ft). The chassis is long, sleek, and reminiscent of the SR-71 Blackbird. Its unladen mass is 41,000 kg (90,400 lbs), with a fuel mass of 220,000 kg (485,000 lbs or 242.5 tons), and a maximum payload mass of 12,000 kg (26,450 lbs). The entire craft can be thought of as similar to a SR-71 Blackbird, except about twice the size and equipped with a rocket engine.

The Skylon spaceplane would be a reusable vehicle, ready to re-launch after only two days of maintenance and capable of taking 200 trips to orbit before requiring replacement. Its advocates hope that the Skylon could decrease cost to orbit by a factor of 10-20 or more. The Skylon spaceplane would be a nice stepping stone for launch methods, something cheaper and better than our current rockets, to get the space economy started while we're still getting started on building a space elevator.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By anon995810 — On May 29, 2016

Skylon is not a SCRamjet. At different points on its flight path, the airflow into the nacelle exceeds the core engine needs. This is being being slowed down by drag in the nacelle. This is a problem above M1. To control it fuel is injected into this "spill" flow and burnt to re-accelerate the air. It's a subsonic combustion ramjet. Such machines have been flight proven over the last 60+ years.

By anon995659 — On May 17, 2016

Technically its a deeply pre cooled turbo rocket. The ramjets are a side show. They contribute a small part of the thrust

By anon968723 — On Sep 05, 2014

It's not a turbojet - there is no turbine downstream of the combustion chamber. It's also not a scramjet - there is no supersonic combustion.

By anon953935 — On May 29, 2014

@anon29417: This is a research project. The advances in engine design are incontrovertible, and these will be heavily protected by intellectual property legislation.

At some point in the future, these technological innovations are likely to become indispensable to aviation and space travel. The EU, ESA, the UK government, NASA and USAF are all looking at SABRE, no doubt civil manufacturers such as Boeing, Airbus et al. are also looking on with interest. So the engine is the object of interest here and could end up powering anything.

Skylon itself seems more like an example application for the engine, and who knows if that will happen?

By anon41726 — On Aug 17, 2009

BTW, it's a ramjet/rocket hybrid. Dead giveaway is sabre uses shock intake and compressor blades.

By anon29417 — On Apr 01, 2009

all this talk of length and width is great, but what about the speed of the new ship and costs of this new class of ship?

in recent years there has been a lot of talk of new style 'space ships' as you could call them, but many of these revolutionary designs have been nothing but flops with money running low when it is still in the first stages of development. if this ship does have the backing of the eu then this may be one of the first times that a design like this will become a reality but I won't hold my breath.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology...
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