NASA's space shuttle Discovery has completed its final mission, with Endeavour and Atlantis following it into retirement later this year.
It marks the end of a historic chapter in space travel, but a new one might not be light years away if a groundbreaking design for a fully reusable spacecraft can get off the ground.
"Skylon" may only be at the concept stage but it could usher in a new era of space exploration and discovery, says its UK-based designers, Reaction Engines Ltd.
Jonathan Amos Science correspondent
UK engineers have begun critical tests on a new engine technology designed to lift a spaceplane into orbit.
The proposed Skylon vehicle would operate like an airliner, taking off and landing at a conventional runway.
Its major innovation is the Sabre engine, which can breathe air like a jet at lower speeds but switch to a rocket mode in the high atmosphere.
Reaction Engines Limited (REL) believes the test campaign will prove the readiness of Sabre's key elements.
This being so, the firm would then approach investors to raise the £250m needed to take the project into the final design phase.
British engineers have successfully tested a key component of an engine that could power a spaceplane from London to Sydney in under four hours.
The engineers have hailed it as the biggest breakthrough in aerospace propulsion "since the invention of the jet engine".
Oxfordshire-based Reaction Engines hope to build a rocket plane called Lapcat that would take off from an ordinary runway, reach speeds of around 19,000mph in the upper atmosphere and then land like a normal jet aircraft.While still in the atmosphere, the plane's Sabre engine would combine on-board hydrogen fuel with oxygen that it "breathes" from the air. But the air needs to be super-cooled for the engine to work.
Powerman wrote:I can't get over the fact that it looks like something out of a 1960's science fiction epic.
M Paul Lloyd wrote:The X-33 for example (intended to replace the Space Shuttle) was plagued by problems with its experimental propulsion system that no-one had managed to actually get to work properly and a lifting body fuselage/fuel tank that was beyond the specifications of our most advanced materials. It was a bold experiment but it belly flopped before it ever got off the ground.
Failures of the enormous, multi-lobe composite material fuel cells during pressure testing ultimately led to the cancellation of the program as a federal program in 2001, but Lockheed Martin has conducted related testing, and has had successes as recently as 2009.
Diablo wrote:M Paul that picture of the Avro 730 has to be a fake? Isn't it?
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