Monday, March 02, 2009

Air Breathing Rocket: The Future of Space Travel?

Air breathing rockets? Don't you mean jet engines? Not quite, close but different. Ramjet or maybe a Scramjet. Closer But still not quite. The new engine blurs the boundaries of conventional jet engines and that of true rockets.

It's no mystery that it takes several thousand dollars a pound, just to boost it into orbit. The cost comes from the hordes of people that it takes to prepare the vehicle for launch. Plus the cost of boosting all the fuel it needs for the flight as well. Most of the weight penalty comes from the oxidizer which in truth is most of the weight of a launch.

The European Space Agency has awarded the UK firm Reaction Engines 1 million Euro to research the feasibility of a rocket engine that draws the oxidizer it needs from the atmosphere.

Up to this point, researchers have worked with two engine types, the ramjet and scramjet. The problem is that the ramjet is only good at speeds below mach 5, above mach 5 and the air is too hot for combustion. Above mach 5 and the scramjet can be used by mixing fuel with the ultra hot air. So you need 2 types of engines while in the atmosphere and another while in space. Very ineficient.

Reaction Engines wants to develop an engine which draws in air for the oxidizer to fuel a standard rocket engine. This way a space craft or plane could use just one engine. Drawing in air to burn all the way to space and then switching over to ab onboard supply of oxygen.

(pictured is Reaction Engines concept Skylon space plane)

NewScientist article

No comments: