British company Reaction Engines has tested its groundbreaking precooler in airflow temperature conditions and has verified that it can withstand Mach 5 — the equivalent of 5 times the speed of sound.
This is a significant step in the ESA-supported development of the air-breathing SABRE engine.
The new engine combines traditional jet and rocket technology and promises hypersonic flight and better access to space.
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Withstanding Mach 5 conditions
The precooler heat exchanger is a crucial component of the SABRE engine. It cools the hot airstream generated by the incredible speeds a craft that is using the engine would generate.
Mach 5 is more than double the cruising speed of a Concorde and is 50 percent faster than the SR-71 Blackbird, the world’s fastest jet-powered aircraft. At Mach 5, an aircraft could cross the Atlantic Ocean in only two hours.
Reaction Engines' precooler was made to prevent the 1,000-degree centigrade conditions of Mach 5 from severely damaging components. It does so by lowering air temperatures down to minus 150 degrees centigrade in less than a 20th of a second.
“This is not only an excellent achievement in its own right but one important step closer to demonstrating the feasibility of the entire SABRE engine concept,” Mark Ford, head of ESA’s Propulsion Engineering section, said in a press release.
Testing for hypersonic flight
The test, which was completed two weeks ago at Reaction Engines' test site in Colorado, paves the way for hypersonic flight, said Chief Executive Mark Thomas: “It’s the first time anyone has taken cooling technology to these levels and really made credible the potential for a high-speed precooled jet engine. It is unique."
Though more tests are needed, Reaction Engines and backers, including ESA and UKSA, hope SABRE can eventually be used in reusable spaceplanes.
As the flight to Mach 5 uses atmospheric air as a propellant, an aircraft using the SABRE engine would be able to carry much less heavy liquid oxygen on board. This reduction in weight could potentially enable a great reduction in cost and a higher launch rate.