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Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Outer Space ... Science ... Technology ...

It looks like the whole “space-plane” idea is not dead, even though the US Space Shuttle program ended in late 2011. The British “Skylon” idea has been generating increased press attention lately (you can see the November bump for it on Google Trends), even though the Skylon idea has been kicked around at least since 2000.

The Skylon spaceplane would be different in many ways than the Shuttle was, although the overall goal is similar (i.e., a rocket that takes off into orbit, drops off a payload in space, and then returns to a landing field so as to be used again). In an important sense, Skylon is even more of a “space-plane” than the Shuttle was; it looks more like a regular airplane than a rocket (somewhat reminiscent of the X-15 “semi-spaceplane” experiment of the early 1960s). By comparison, the Shuttle was just the reverse — mostly a rocket with a plane on its back.

So Skylon’s differences from the Shuttle are significant; one big factor is that Skylon would be a “single-stage-to-orbit” vehicle, something that hasn’t yet been achieved. But these differences might also be seen as an evolution of the overall space-plane concept, and not as a radical shift from the Shuttle’s basic intent. Skylon would be a bit smaller than the Shuttle was, perhaps around half as large. It would be un-manned, and is designed to put a 15,000 kg payload into low earth orbit. The Shuttle, by comparison, could take a 24,500 kg payload into low orbit, plus perhaps another 5,000 kg worth of crew quarters and human life support equipment for a total payload of around 30,000 kg. (Skylon could eventually be modified to carry a human crew module.) It’s also a lot more sleek, with a needle-like body and short wings (versus the Shuttle’s bloated fuel tank, boat-like main orbital vehicle, and solid-fuel boosters attached).

Skylon’s biggest difference from the Shuttle, the thing that perhaps makes it such an advancement, is in its engines. The Space Shuttle depended on standard rocket engines to get up into space, and acted as a glider to get back home to a runway. By contrast, Skylon’s engines will let it take off as a jet plane, and once above the atmosphere those engines convert themselves into rocket thrusters (this arrangement allows Skylon to be a “single-stage-to-orbit” craft, although SSTO could be achieved in other ways). The Shuttle obviously did not have any thrust while it was flying in the atmosphere (ditto for the Soviet Russian knock-off version of the Shuttle, the once-flown “Buran”, although its development prototype had jets attached to the orbiter body for use during atmospheric testing).

This new engine makes Skylon’s capabilities quite different than the Space Shuttle’s. The Shuttle was designed to be big; bigness was what was supposed to make the Shuttle economically viable, a cheaper way to put satellites into orbit versus regular expendable rockets (and obviously that did not work out). Skylon’s jet-to-rocket-back-to-jet configuration limits its size, by contrast. You can shoot a small, sleek aircraft up toward space, and with some effort maintain stability as with the previously mentioned X-15 experimental rocket-plane (which lost control once and had two in-flight explosions during its tests). However, you could not take a jumbo jet like a 747 or A380 and try to zoom it up into the heavens, no matter how many Skylon engines you strap on to it; its size would cause too much exterior turbulence and warping stress while trying to make a fast climb into the stratosphere.

Therefore, Skylon could only be used for smaller commercial-sized satellites, and could not send up a big scientific mission like the Hubble or James Webb space telescopes (unless you could send it up in pieces and had robots assemble it while in orbit). The convertible engine is probably the toughest part of turning Skylon into a reality. The convertible jet / rocket engine is something new, something that will take a lot of engineering and development. The current projection for Skylon’s first test flight is 2019 (that’s the most optimistic projection; some sources say that 2025 is more realistic).

The British government just invested 60 million pounds into the Skylon project, even though it is ultimately envisioned as a private capitalist venture (one of many capitalistic space ventures now being developed). Perhaps Skylon will put Great Britain back on the map, technologically. Skylon, if it works, is expected to drop the cost per kg put into orbit (or pound or ton or whatever) by a factor of 20. Well, once upon a time there were great hopes like that for the Space Shuttle. But if Skylon could achieve half of that, it would still be a big step forward in making space more accessible.

Here’s hoping that the technology and the economics for a successful space-plane (SSTO-style) are finally coming into alignment. Recall though that NASA once envisioned an SSTO spaceplane called “VentureStar” as the successor to the Space Shuttle. However, NASA gave up on VentureStar around 2001, as it just didn’t seem to be economically and technically feasible, especially in light of the failures of its X-33 program (the X-33 spaceplane prototype never got off the ground). If Skylon could somehow be made to work, it would be “revolutionary”; the British would be back in the game of conquering the frontier. Once again, it would be Hail Britannia . . . the new Ruler of the Exosphere!

P.S., this post was written just a few days after the horrendous terrorist attack in Paris. Perhaps talking about rockets and spaceplanes right now seems a bit infantile and inappropriate in the face of a world so full of woe and suffering. I’d like to think that technology makes the world a better place, but history shows that basic human instincts are never changed very much by whatever the scientists and engineers managed to come up with. Despite the advent of fire, agriculture, sea-ships, hydrocarbon fuels, steel, electricity, atomic power, computers and whatnot, humans have remained a mix of heathen and saint. And I’ll be pondering both our wonderful and awful sides in upcoming posts, including how technology allows us to be all the more wonderful, and all the more terrible (e.g., drones might allow Amazon to deliver a package ordered in the morning to you by early afternoon; they could also allow terrorists to sprinkle cancerous radioactive powder over a densely populated city). For now, though, I want to let my mind and imagination roam, leaving this troubled planet for just a little while in the hatch of a sleek SSTO rocket-jet named “Skylon”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:34 am      

  1. Jim, The “space-plane” sounds like it would be a good idea if it would work as it seems it’s supposed to work. But I find I can’t help but think that here’s another case where some jobs will no longer be needed — another case where people can be dispensed with. (Although I use ATMs a great deal, I remember when they first came into use; and when I use them now I still think the same tho’ts I had then: The jobs of all the people who were “tellers” are not needed; handing out money from a personal account is now done by computers.) Seems it’s happening in the Space Shuttle program too.

    Further it seems that just as banks adjusted to ATM use and fewer humans are needed inside the bank, I’m sure the Space Shuttle program will adjust much more quickly to a plane that can come and go, delivering packages with no person on board.

    Take this concept far enough in the technological age, and one begins to wonder just what humans will actually *do* in the future. What nobody seems to be considering or even has started to think about are the questions that arise for humans in a world where basically they are not needed for work. Where will humans get a sense of satisfaction at a job done well? Will all humans have to turn to science or the creative arts to achieve a sense of satisfaction? How will humans who have no particular interest in either or both of those areas survive? Will humans have to turn inward and develop and evolve the “inner person”? That might be most interesting. But then again: How will people not interested in the “inner person” survive in such an environment, most especially if they are also not interested in science or the creative arts?

    Seems to me that this plane and so many developments of the technological age bring up questions nobody is giving much tho’t to but should be. Catching up on such questions when it’s already late for them to be asked could lead to a serious problem for humans.

    As to your P.S. regarding the recent events in Paris (and the worse ones we’ve had in the U.S. earlier): I find myself wondering several things, namely, just how people have to “adjust” their thinking to get to the point where killing people is considered a thing that God will reward and be happy for.

    (This is really not a new thing: Christians have killed a lot of people in the surety that they were right and others who did not think exactly as they tho’t were wrong. Christians at one point at the end of the 100s and the beginning of the 200s had to be admonished by their Bishops — of whom Clement of Alexandria was a major one – that *wanting* to be martyred was itself a sin in that it caused another to commit murder of oneself.)

    But this thinking raises some questions in my mind: I read somewhere on some post on the Internet that the so-called leader of the Paris attack tho’t of “martyrdom” as a wonderful and glorious thing. (I paraphrase here.) I found it interesting that he tho’t in terms of *others* martyrdom *not* his own martyrdom. (Seems it was the same with Osama bin Laden – he tho’t in terms of *others* martyrdom and was not so quick with his own.) Seems to me that’s a “sure, easy for *you* to say”.

    I wonder just how someone would go about convincing people to kill themselves since, as far as I can find out, no founder of any religion has made martyrdom a major factor in achieving holiness or heaven. Surely, these people are driven by some deep depression/anger. What lies behind such anger turned against themselves so that they are willing to kill themselves. Surely, it seems a puny reward to get 72 virgins in the next life to have sex with; simply thinking about that statement brings to mind all the things that are wrong with it; e.g.: How long would it take to get bored with the 72?, for one question.

    Somehow or other, it seems that a post about a “space-plane” brings up more questions than answers – at least in my mind. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — November 17, 2015 @ 3:44 pm

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