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London - It is being hailed as the greatest breakthrough in air travel since the invention of the jet.
British experts unveiled an engine that promises to fly passengers from London to Sydney in under five hours at speeds of up to 4,000mph (about 6,400kmph).
Its creators believe the revolutionary design, which gained formal approval from the European Space Agency, could also be used to send satellites into space at a fraction of the current cost.
The design created by engineers at Oxfordshire-based Reaction Engines can cool air entering an engine from 1,000C to -150C in a hundredth of a second – six times faster than the blink of an eye – without creating ice blockages.
This allows the engine to run safely at much higher power than is currently possible without the risk overheating and breaking apart.
The design – known as an air-breathing rocket engine and named Sabre – could power a new generation of Mach 5 passenger jets, called the Lapcat, dramatically cutting flying times.
While normal long-haul passenger jets cruise at around 35,000ft, the Lapcat could fly as high as 92,000ft at speeds of up to 4,000mph.
The cabin would be pressurised, so up to 300 travellers would enjoy the same conditions as those on a current jet. But due to the increased external pressures on the craft, it would be windowless.
Alan Bond, who led the research, said the birth of the engine represented “the proudest moment” of his life. “These tests represent a fundamental breakthrough in propulsion technology. Innovation doesn’t happen overnight. Independent experts have confirmed that the full engine can now be demonstrated. The Sabre engine has the potential to revolutionise our lives in the 21st century in the way the jet engine did in the 20th century.”
He added: “If you wanted to go to Australia, in four hours or so, then that would be the best way to go and you would pay the cost of a first class or business class flight.”
Philippa Oldham, head of transport and manufacturing at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: “This technology brings us a step closer to flights from London to Sydney that last just a little longer than an in-flight film, or even two-week holidays in space.”
The engine has also been developed to work with Skylon, a new type of reusable space plane. This could reach an even higher speed than the passenger design, accelerating up to Mach 5.5 – 4,200mph at sea level and more than five times the speed of sound. Once out of the Earth’s atmosphere, it would then accelerate to Mach 25 to ascend into orbit.
The craft would take off from a runway like a normal aircraft and have the ability to carry satellites into low Earth orbit. After landing, it could quickly be turned around for another launch. The engine burns hydrogen as fuel, and operates by sucking oxygen from the air. Only when outside the atmosphere would the engine switch to an onboard supply of oxygen, saving on weight and fuel costs. The global space market is worth £185-billion a year. Science minister David Willetts said: “This is a remarkable achievement for a remarkable company.
“Building on years of unique engineering know-how, Reaction Engines has shown the world that Britain remains at the forefront of technological innovation and can get ahead in the global race. This technology could revolutionise the future of air and space travel.” The company now hopes to secure £250-million to produce a small-scale version of their design. If that goes well, they predict the Lapcat will be a reality in a decade. - Daily Mail