Image: The Skylon spaceplane docked with a space station. Credit: Reaction Engines

Skylon Spaceplane: The Spacecraft of Tomorrow

FEB 19, 2013 11:46 AM ET // BY MARKUS HAMMONDS

It’s difficult not to be impressed by the towering rockets used around the world to launch spacecraft into orbit. From the colossal Saturn V rockets developed in the 1960s to the SpaceX Falcon 9, one of last year’s highlights, rockets are practically synonymous with space travel in modern culture.

However, rockets are also a huge financial drain on any spaceflight, being only partially reusable. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were cheaper and more economical to get to orbit? Cue the Skylon spaceplane, currently scheduled to commence test flights in 2019.

Over 30 years in the making, Skylon is a vehicle being developed by British company Reaction Engines Limited, and is being built as the world’s first fully reusable spaceplane (a spacecraft that takes off and lands horizontally like a conventional aircraft). In fact, each Skylon spaceplane is intended to be reusable over 200 times — quite a drastic improvement over any space vehicle in active use today.

The most notable benefit of this would be a dramatic reduction in the cost of transporting items to orbit. With current launch vehicles, it costs over $23,000 per kilogram to lift cargo into orbit. This is to cover both the cost of a huge amount of fuel, and the price of the launch vehicle itself. A reusable vehicle like Skylon would slash this price down to just over $1,000 per kilogram. Much more manageable!

Creating fully reusable launch systems has been an ambition of the aerospace industry for well over half a century now. Despite plentiful research and development work and a menagerie of design concepts, no such vehicle has yet been created. The closest humanity has come so far was the Space Shuttle, where the orbiter craft and the two solid rocket engines were able to be reused — albeit only after a few months of refitting work. The ultimate aim has always been a Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) vehicle, capable of launching directly into space from ground level, without needing to discard any rocket boosters on the way.

Read more: Skylon Spaceplane: The Spacecraft of Tomorrow : Discovery News.

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