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Hypersonic planes a step closer after breakthrough that prevents engine melting at 4,000mph

Ellie Zolfagharifard
Engineers at Oxfordshire-based Reaction Engines have successfully tested a precooling system that allows engines to withstand Mach 5, or speeds of nearly 4,000mph - Reaction Engines/Reaction Engines

Hypersonic planes that can take passengers from London to New York in under an hour are a step closer to reality thanks to British technology. 

Engineers at Oxfordshire-based Reaction Engines have successfully tested a pre-cooling system that allows engines to withstand Mach 5, or speeds of nearly 4,000mph. 

Mach 5 is more than twice as fast as the cruising speed of Concorde and more than 50pc faster than the SR-71 Blackbird aircraft, the world’s fastest jet-engine powered aircraft.

However, travelling at such an extreme speeds has been hard to achieve up until now because the extreme conditions cause the engine to melt. Air entering at Mach 5 can reach in excess of 1,000 degrees. 

Reaction Engines has found a way to reduce that to -150 degrees centigrade in a 20th of a second.

The company tested the precooler on its Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine (Sabre)  Credit: Reaction Engines/Reaction Engines

“This is a major moment in the development of a breakthrough aerospace technology which has seen Reaction Engines’ precooler tested at Mach 5 airflow temperature conditions, smashing through previous achievements at Mach 3.3 temperatures and paving the way for hypersonic flight,” said Mark Thomas, Chief Executive of Reaction Engines.

The company tested the precooler on its Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine (Sabre) - a hybrid hydrogen air-breathing rocket that has been designed to be fitted on both commercial planes and spacecraft. 

The Sabre engine works by chilling the incoming air from to zero using tiny tubes of super-cooled helium. The captured heat is also used to power the engine. 

The team is currently trialling parts of the engine in Denver, Colorado, and hopes to begin test flights in the mid 2020s, before commercial flights in the 2030s. 

“The Sabre engine is one of the UK’s most exciting engineering projects which could change forever how we launch satellites into orbit and travel across the world,” said Chris Skidmore, Science Minister. 

The latest test is the culmination of 30 years of work since Reaction Engines was founded in 1989 by three propulsion engineers from Rolls-Royce, Alan Bond, Richard Varvill and John Scott-Scott, known as the “three rocketeers”.

Over the last four years Reaction Engines has raised over £100m from public and private sources and has secured investment from BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Boeing HorizonX.

The company has also partnered with the RAF to develop hypersonic planes for the military as part of a two-year project. 

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