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Ultrafast, air-breathing rocket engine moves a step closer

Ultrafast, air-breathing rocket engine moves a step closer

Reactor Engines, a British aerospace company, says it's successfully tested a rocket engine that could eventually allow for supersonic flight to space.

A revolutionary 'air breathing' space plane could one day blast passengers from London to NY in less than an hour, after it passed a key hurdle this week.

Hypersonic jet travel across the Atlantic has moved a step closer after scientists successfully tested technology to stop jet engines melting at speeds up to 25 times the speed of sound.

Specialists at Reaction Engines say they have created a "pre-cooler", which worked at simulated speeds of Mach 3.3 - or 2,509 miles per hour to the laymen - meaning hypersonic travel could be on the horizon.

The company's ultimate ambition is to incorporate the pre-cooler into its experimental Sabre engine. The precooler is a key element of Reaction Engines' revolutionary SABRE engine and is a potential enabling technology for advanced propulsion systems and other commercial applications.

It comes 30 years after Reaction Engines was formed in the United Kingdom around an engine cycle concept to enable access to space and hypersonic air-breathing flight from a standing start.

They hope to get their SABRE engine precooler to the point where it can handle air temperatures in excess of the 1,000 degrees Celsius (~1,800 degrees Fahrenheit) experienced at Mach 5.

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The key is a pre-cooler heat-exchanger, which cools the air until it's nearly a liquid before it is burned, using a network of pipes.

Sabre can be considered a hybrid of a jet engine and a rocket engine.

It would carry significantly less fuel oxidant than a conventional rocket, making it much lighter.

"This is a hugely significant milestone which has seen Reaction Engines proprietary precooler technology achieve unparalleled heat transfer performance", Mark Thomas, the company's CEO, said in a press release.

From take-off to Mach 5.5 (5.5 times the speed of sound), it would take oxygen from the atmosphere, which would be fed into a rocket combustion chamber.

Created to drive space planes to orbit at Mach 5, and also take airliners around the world in just a few hours, the Sabre air-breathing rocket engine has just passed a crucial testing phase. The ground-based test saw Reaction Engines' precooler bring down the 420°C (788°F) intake airflow in under 1/20th of a second. At slow speeds and at low altitude, it would act like a jet, burning its fuel in a stream of air from the atmosphere.