LONDON — BAE Systems has taken a 20 percent stake in a British company developing an air-breathing rocket engine capable of powering aircraft at speeds in excess of 4,500 miles per hour.
Europe's largest defense contractor announced Nov. 2 it was investing £20.6 million (US $31.8 million) in the Abingdon, England-based company Reaction Engines.
The technology would allow an aircraft to take off from a conventional runway, accelerate to Mach 5 and then convert to rocket mode taking the vehicle up to orbital velocity.
Nigel Whitehead, BAE's group managing director of programs and support, said the collaboration gives the company "a strategic interest in a breakthrough air and space technology with significant future potential."
The British government is expected to confirm a £60 million grant later this year to help develop the engine for ground-based testing and investigate potential applications for a space access vehicle.
Mark Thomas, Reaction Engines' managing director, said negotiations with the government are almost complete and he was confident the grant would be approved by the end of the year. Thomas said the company was in the transition phase between research and development, and the target was to run a ground test engine by the end of the decade and a flight demonstration for the first time over the following five years.
"My expectation is we will go with a scale engine for the tests as it's a more manageable undertaking," he said.
Thomas said the engine architecture is highly scalable: "I can envisage the engine being applicable across quite a large thrust range, enabling multiple applications."
A key element of the engine is the development of ultra-lightweight heat exchangers that allow the cooling of very hot airstreams from more than 1,000 degrees Celsius to minus 150 degrees Celsius in less than 1/100th of a second while preventing the formation of ice at sub-zero temperatures.
Earlier this year a US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) analysis confirmed the feasibility of the thermodynamic cycle of the SABRE concept and said that in theory the approach was viable, provided engine component and integration challenges are met.
Thomas said they are looking at formulating plans for continuation of the relationship with AFRL.
"They clearly have a strong interest in this key new propulsion technology," he said.