Is that an airplane or a rocket? It’s both!

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

hybrid Skylon
Unlike regular rocketships that are launched vertically into space, the Skylon uses a runway.

Earlier last month, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX tested their Grasshopper rocket. The craft flew hundreds of feet in the air, hovered sideways for a bit, then landed back down on the launch pad. The company claimed this was an important step in creating a reusable rocket that could potentially save millions of dollars.

They’re not the only ones in the race for a super affordable rocket. Aerospace company Reaction Engines has also been working towards the world’s first fully-reusable spacecraft, the Skylon. It’s designed to offer safe, affordable, frequent, and reliable trips around the Earth in space. It will also be able to take off from a runway, exactly like an airplane!

The secret lies in its high-tech hybrid Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE), which is part chemical rocket and part jet engine. Unlike regular spacecraft that pack gigantic tanks of oxygen, the SABRE is able to use the oxygen that’s already in the air. This unique feature  eliminates the need to use heavy tanks, which drastically slow down regular rocketships. In fact, engineers say the engine will propel the Skylon to a speed of around 4,000 miles per hour!

“The Skylon could be ready to head back to space within two days of landing,” says Mark Hempsell, the future-programs director at Reaction Engines. However, traveling at such speeds comes at a high cost. SABRE has to produce a lot of heat to keep the Skylon moving at 4,000 mph, which is a huge problem. Hot air is difficult to compress, and if the engine doesn’t squish the air correctly, it will make the Skylon very inefficient. Thankfully, engineers from Reaction Engines created a special system that takes sweltering hot air and flash-chills it in a matter of seconds! “We’re looking at a revolution in transportation,” says engineer Alan Bond, who founded the company in the 1980s.

The SABRE-equipped Skylon caught the eyes of the European Space Agency (ESA), who performed an official inspection and found nothing wrong with the craft. In fact, both the ESA and British government have invested a combined $92 million for the project. However, the company will still need roughly $18 billion to complete the spacecraft and engine, so it will also seek out private investors. If all goes as planned, Skylon should be ready for a full test-flight in four years. Looks like Elon Musk is already jumping ahead of the competition with his Grasshopper, which is already being tested.

Images and video courtesy of UK Space Agency and Reaction Engines LTD.