Ultrafast, air-breathing rocket engine moves a step closer

Fans of supersonic flight have been yearning for a new way to break the sound barrier ever since Concorde stopped flying in 2003.

Now successful tests of a key part of an air-breathing rocket engine may have brought that dream a step closer to reality.

UK company Reaction Engines announced successful tests of a precooler on Monday, simulating conditions at Mach 3.3, or more than three times the speed of sound.

The precooler passed the latest tests with flying colors

That’s more than 50% faster than the cruising speed of Concorde — which used to make the journey between New York and Paris in around 3.5 hours — and matches the speed record of the fastest jet aircraft ever made, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.

The precooler tests were part of the company’s plans to develop the Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE) engine and took place at a testing facility at the Colorado Air and Space Port in the United States.

At such high speeds, air flowing through the engine can reach incredibly high temperatures, which can potentially cause damage.

A precooler reduces the temperature of gases before they enter the core engine itself.

Recent tests prove that the component can cool gases from over 1,000 Celsius to ambient temperature in less than 1/20th of a second, according to a statement from Reaction Engines.

“This is a hugely significant milestone which has seen Reaction Engines’ proprietary precooler technology achieve unparalleled heat transfer performance,” said Mark Thomas, Reaction Engines’ CEO.

“The HTX [precooler] test article met all test objectives and the successful initial tests highlight how our precooler delivers world-leading heat transfer capabilities at low weight and compact size.”

Thomas emphasized that the technology could also be used in hybrid electric aviation as well as very high-speed flight.

The SABRE engine is designed to reach speeds above Mach 5 in the Earth’s atmosphere, and will then be able to turn into a rocket that can fly through space at up to Mach 25.

It “breathes” air from the atmosphere, allowing greater fuel efficiency and lower weight than existing rocket engines that need to carry their own oxygen supply.

Such is the interest in the technology that Reaction Engines has received more than £100 million ($130 million) in funding over the past four years, as well as securing investment from important industry players such as BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Boeing HorizonX.

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