Posts Tagged ‘Skylon’

Britain and Russia Nearly Cooperated to Develop HOTOL Spaceplane

July 17, 2020

The news today has been partly dominated by reports that the Russians have been trying to steal secrets of a possible vaccine for Coronavirus. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t remotely surprise me if this was true. Way back in the 1990s the popular science magazine, Focus, did a feature on espionage which stated that most of it was industrial with competing corporations trying to steal each other’s secrets. And I think that during the Cold War the Russians were spying on British companies trying to steal technology. But during the ’90s there was a period when it seemed that Britain and Russia would work together to develop the British spaceplane, HOTOL.

HOTOL would have used a mixture of air-breathing and conventional rocket engines to get into orbit, taking off and landing on ordinary airstrips. It would have been initially unmanned, designed to carry payloads of 7,000-8,000 kilos into low Earth orbit. Crewed missions would be carried out by converting by converting the cargo compartment into a pressurized cabin. The project was cancelled because there were problems developing the air-breathing engines. It was hoped that the Europeans would be interested in supporting it, but they refused on the grounds of the possible cost. However, this resulted in plans for the plane to be adapted to take off from a Russian transport plane. The entry for ‘Spaceplanes’ in the book Space Exploration in the series of Chambers Encyclopedic Guides (Edinburgh: W&R Chambers 1992) says of this

In response to this, an interim HOTOL, using conventional rockets instead of the original air-breathing engines, has been proposed. The interim HOTOL, which has a shorter, fatter fuselage, would be carried to high altitude on the back of the huge Soviet-developed Antonov An-225 transport aircraft and then released. Once clear of the aircraft, HOTOL would fire its rocket motor to climb the rest of the way into orbit. If development were to be authorized it is believed that the first flight of the interim HOTOL could be in 2005. (p. 207).

This entry also contained the following artist’s impression of the HOTOL spaceplane taking off from the back of the Soviet transport plane.

I think this would have been an eminently practical project. The American X-15 rocket plane, which achieved orbit, was launched from a specially-equipped conventional aircraft, as were the various lifting bodies that led to the development of the Space Shuttle. If Britain and Russia had cooperated on it, then we and the Russians would be boldly going into space together 15 years ago. Obviously politics and doubtless costs intervened. I dare say that there was also concerns about technology transfer and the Russians acquiring British aerospace secrets.

But it’s an example of yet another opportunity to expand onto the High Frontier being missed. Nevertheless HOTOL has now been superseded by Skylon, which is almost complete and which should fly. If it gets the backing it needs to put Britain back in orbit.


















‘I’ Article on Planned British Lunar Rover

October 13, 2019

Friday’s I for the 11th October 2019 also had a really cool piece of space news. It seems that there are plans to send a British rover, designed by a start-up company, to the Moon in 2021. It is, however, tiny, and looks something like a four-legged, boxy mechanical spider. The article, ‘Give us a lift: Britain’s first lunar rover hitches a ride to the Moon’, by Nina Massey, runs

The UK’s first Moon rover will be sent into space in 2021 – and will be tiny.

Announced at the New Scientist Live event in London’s ExCel, British space start-up SpaceBit created and designed the robot. SpaceBit founder Pavlo Tanasyuk said: “Our goal is to go and see what is available there for all humanity to explore.”

He added that, unlike rovers with wheels or tracks, this robot with its four legs would provide an opportunity for “something a little bit like a human” to explore the lunar surface.

Only three other countries have put a rover on the Moon: the US, Russia and China.

In May, NASA announced that Astrobotic and two other companies had been awarded funding to build lunar landers.

US firm Astrobotic was awarded millions of dollars to carry up to 14 NASA instruments to the Moon, as well as 14 payloads from other partners.

SpaceBit will be one of those partners, sending the rover to the surface inside Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander.

It is expected to land in June or July 2021. Once the lander reaches the Moon, the 1.5kg rover will drop from beneath it to the surface along with other payloads.

It will scuttle across the surface taking measurements and collecting exploration data that can be analysed for scientific and exploration purposes.

It also has two cameras that will enable it to take “robot selfies”, SpaceBit said.

The reason for the legs is that in future lunar missions, the rover will go into lava tubes, which has not been possible before, Mr Tanasyuk said. he added: “It will spend up to 10 days on the Moon before going into the night and basically then freezing for ever.”

The article carried two photographs, one of the rover, and the other of Mr Tanasyuk holding a model of it.

This is great news, as it shows that British entrepreneurs are getting into space exploration. With luck, this rover should do better than the Beagle probe sent to Mars a few years ago. This was intended to find life, but crashed on its surface. SpaceBit join a number of other British space companies that have been set up, like Orbex, now building a spaceport in Scotland, and the expected development of the Skylon spaceplane. It seems that Britain may now be developing a full-fledged space industry, after the cancellation of the British space launcher project in 1975. I wish them God speed, and every success.













The Sky At Night Looks at Britain in Space

October 19, 2018

I just managed to catch the weekday repeat a day or so ago of this month’s Sky at Night, in which presenters Maggie Aderin-Pocock and British astronaut Tim Peake looked at the history of Britain in space, and forward to the country’s future in the deep black. The programme’s changed a bit over the past few years in the case of its presenters. It was famously presented by Sir Patrick Moore from its beginning in the 1950s until he passed away a few years ago. This made the programme the longest-running show presented by the same person. Aderin-Pocock joined it before Moore’s departure. She’s a black woman scientist, with a background in programming missile trajectories. She’s obviously very intelligent, enthusiastic and very definitely deserves her place on the show. But I wish she’d done a job that didn’t involve the military use of rocket technology, however much this is needed as part of national defence.

Aderin-Pocock was speaking to one of the management officials from Orbex, a new, British company, which has developed a rocket launcher and intends to open a spaceport in one of the more deserted areas of Scotland. The rocket will stand about 17 meters tall, using propane and High Test Peroxide as fuel. High Test Peroxide is a highly concentrated version of the hydrogen peroxide used by hairdressers to bleach peoples’ hair. The use of propane is particularly important, as it’s lighter than conventional rocket fuels, meaning that the rocket doesn’t have to carry as much fuel to lift off into space. Advances in satellite design have also allowed the rocket to be smaller than other spacecraft used elsewhere. British universities have succeeded in developing microsatellites – satellites that are much, much smaller than some of the satellites put into orbit, but which can perform the same functions. As these satellites are smaller and lighter, they only need a relatively smaller, lighter rocket to launch them.

The Scottish launch complex also wasn’t going to be as big as other, larger, major launch complexes, such as those of NASA, for example. I think it would still contain a launch tower and control buildings. As well as the official from Orbex, the show also talked to a woman representing the rural community in the part of Scotland, where they were planning to build it. She admitted that there would be problems with building it in this part of the Scots countryside. However, the community was only going to lease the land, not sell it to Orbex, and care would be taken to protect the farms of the local crofters and the environment and wildlife. Like much of rural Britain, this was an area of few jobs, and the population was aging as the young people moved away in search of work. She looked forward to Orbex and its spaceport bringing work to the area, and creating apprenticeships for the local young people.

The programme went on to explain that this would be the first time for decades that a British company was going to build a British rocket to launch a British satellite. From what looked the British space museum in Manchester, Time Peake stood under the display of Britain’s Black Knight rocket and the Prospero satellite. He explained how the rocket launched the satellite into space from Australia in 1975. However, the project was then cancelled, which meant that Britain is the only country so far which has developed, and then discarded rocket technology.

But Black Knight wasn’t the only space rocket Britain developed. Peake then moved on to talk about Skylark, a massively successful sounding rocket. Developed for high altitude research, the rocket reached a maximum of altitude of 400 km in the few minutes it was in flight. At its apogee – its maximum distance from Earth – the vehicle briefly experienced a few minutes of zero gravity, during which experiments could be performed exploring this environment. The Skylark rocket was used for decades before it was finally cancelled.

Aderin-Pocock asked the official from Orbex how long it would be before the spaceport would be up and running. The manager replied that this was always an awkward question to answer, as there was always something that meant operations and flights would start later than expected. He said, however, that they were aiming at around the end of 2020 and perhaps the beginning of 2021.

Orbex are not, however, the only space company planning to open a spaceport in Britain. Virgin Galactic have their own plans to launch rockets in to space from Cornwall. Their vehicle will not, however, be launched from the ground like a conventional rocket, but will first be carried to a sufficiently high altitude by an airplane, which would then launch it. I’m not a betting man, but my guess is that of the two, Orbex is the far more likely to get off the ground, as it were, and begin launching its rocket on schedule. As I’ve blogged about previously, Branson has been telling everyone since the late 1990s at least, that Virgin Galactic are going to be flying tourists into space in just a few months from now. This fortnight’s Private Eye published a brief list of the number of times Branson had said that, with dates. It might be that Branson will at last send the first of his aspiring astronauts up in the next few months, as he claimed last week. But from his previous form, it seems far more likely that Orbex will start launches before him, as will Branson’s competitors over the pond, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

When asked about the company’s capability of perfecting their technology, Orbex’s manager not stressed the skill and competence of the scientists, technicians and engineers working on the project. This included not just conventional space scientists, but also people, who had personally tried and failed to build their own spacecraft. He said that it was extremely important to fail to build rockets. He’s obviously referring to the many non-professional, hobby rocketeers out there trying to build their own spacecraft. He didn’t mention them, but one example would be the people at Starchaser, who started out as a small group of enthusiasts in Yorkshire but have gone on to create their own space company, now based across the pond in America. I think it’s brilliant that amateurs and semi-professionals have developed skills that the professionals in the industry find valuable. And the failures are important, as they show what can go wrong, and give the experience and necessary information on how to avoid it. I don’t think the rocket will be wholly built in this country. The manager said that some of it was being constructed in Copenhagen. This sounds like Copenhagen Suborbitals, a Danish team of rocket scientists, who are trying to put a person into space. They’re ex-NASA, I believe, but it’s a small, private venture. They have a webpage and have posted videos on YouTube, some of which I’ve reblogged. They’ve also said they’re keen for people to join them, or start their own rocket projects.

I’d been looking forward to that edition of the Sky at Night for the past week, but when the time came, it slipped my mind that it was on. I’m very glad I was able to catch it. If Orbex are successful, it will be the first time that a British satellite will launch a British satellite from here in Britain. And it sounds really optimistic. Not only will Britain be returning to space rocket development, but the Scots spaceport sounds like it will, hopefully, bring work to a depressed area. I’m also confident that the local environment there will also be preserved. The launch complex around NASA is necessarily so remote from other buildings, that it’s actually become a wildlife haven. So much so that it’s now a location for birdwatching.

When it was announced that they were planning to build a new spaceport in Scotland, I assumed it would be for Skylon, the British spaceplane. There had been articles in the paper about the spacecraft, which stated that it would be launched either from Scotland or Cornwall. It seems I was wrong, and that it’s Orbex’s rocket which will be launched there instead. But nevertheless, I wish Orbex every success in their venture, and hope that sometime soon Skylon will also join them in flight out on the High Frontier.

JBIS Article on the Skylon British Spaceplane

October 9, 2018

In my last article, I discussed the forthcoming edition of the Beeb’s long-running space and astronomy programme, the Sky at Night, on the history of Britain in space. The programme will be presented by Tim Peake, and the blurb about it this week’s Radio Times looks forward to the opening of Britain’s first spaceport in Scotland within the next few years. The Radio Times doesn’t mention it, but recent newspaper articles have stated that such a spaceport will be built sometime in the very near future for launching the Skylon spaceplane. This is an unmanned vehicle, which has been developed as the successor to the 1980s HOTOL spaceplane.

Two of the scientists and engineers involved in the project, Richard Varvill and Alan Bond, published an article describing the plane in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Vol. 57, no. 1/ 2, for January/February 2004. The JBIS is the technical magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, founded in the 1930s to encourage British research into rocketry and space travel. The article runs from p.22 to p.32. The article itself is too long to reproduce, but its abstract runs as follows:

SKYLON is a single stage to orbit (SSTO) winged spaceplane designed to give routine low cost access to space. At a gross takeoff weight of 275 tonnes of which 2202 tonnes is propellant the vehicle is capable of placing 12 tonnes into an equatorial low Earth orbit. The vehicle configuration consists of a slender fuselage containing the propellant tankage and payload bay with delta wings located midway along the fuselage carrying the SABRE engines in axisymmetric nacelles on the wingtips. The vehicle takes off and lands horizontally on its own undercarriage. The fuselage is constructed as a multilayer structure consisting of aeroshell, insulation, structure and tankage. SKYLON employs extant or near term materials technology in order to minimize development cost and risk. The SABRE engines have a dual mode capability. In rocket mode the engine operates as a closed cycle liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen high specific impulse rocket engine. In airbreathing mode (from takeoff to Mach 5) the liquid oxygen flow is replaced by atmospheric air, increasing the installed specific impulse 3-6 fold. The airflow is drawn into the engine via a 2 shock axisymmetric intake and cooled to cryogenic temperatures prior to compression. The hydrogen fuel flow acts as a heat sink for the closed cycle helium loop before entering the main combustion chamber. (p. 22).

Schematic of the SKYLON spaceplane in the above article.

I’m delighted that the spaceplane is now set to enter service and look forward to the opening of the new spaceport in Scotland.

‘Sky At Night’ on Sunday on Britain in Space

October 9, 2018

Next Sunday’s edition of Sky at Night, for 14th October 2018, will be looking at the history of the British space programme and its possible future. The blurb for it in the Radio Times runs

Space Britannia

The future of Britain’s space programme, examining plans for the first UK spaceport in Scotland and the potential launch of revolutionary micro-satellites over the next decade. Guest presenter Tim Peake looks at the history of British space exploration.

The programme’s on BBC4 at 10.00 pm.

Britain did have a very successful space programme from the 1950s to about 1975. The UK developed a number of very successful sounding rockets, like Skua, which were used by meterologists for the exploration of the upper atmosphere. Development of the Blue Steel missile, intended as the launcher for Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, resulted in the creation of the Black Knight rocket, which successfully launched a British satellite, Ariel, into orbit in 1975 from Woomera in Australia. And then the British launcher programme was cancelled, as civil service mandarins felt it would be more economical to have our satellites launched by the Americans.

We were also part of the ESRO programme in the 1960s until that finally fell to pieces in the 1970s. This was a European programme to produce a common launch rocket for European satellites We were to produce the first stage, and the French, Germans and Italians the others. Our part of the rocket worked perfectly, but there were problems with the other stages. This led to the programme’s cancellation as costs mounted. The French, however, continued developing rockets, leading eventually to the launch of Ariane, which has been immensely successful. We were left behind as the launch of our satellites depended on the Americans’ own plans and launch priorities. And the suspension of the space shuttle programme after the Challenger disaster, I believe, did result in Britain losing that as a launch vehicle for the duration.

Black Arrow, another British Rocket

There have been a number of plans to develop British spaceplanes, like MUSTARD in the 1960s and then HOTOL in the 1980s. HOTOL was cancelled because of difficulties getting the airbreathing engines to work. However, work on the plane continued after its official cancellation. The problems have been ironed out, and a new spaceplane developed, Skylon. It’s not a crewed vehicle, so it doesn’t look like any British astronauts will be going into space direct from Blighty just yet. Nevertheless, things are looking very optimistic for the British space programme, as there were reports in the papers a few months ago that the plane would be all set and ready to fly in the very near future, like 2020. I certainly hope so, and will look forward to seeing what this programme has to say about it all.

Al-Jazeera on the First Test Flight of India’s Space Shuttle

September 19, 2018

In this short clip, just over two minutes long, from Al-Jazeera, posted two years ago in 2016, Tariq Bezley reports on the first test flight by the Indian Space Agency of their space shuttle. The shuttle was launched into space on top of a rocket fired from India’s launch facility north of Chenai. The craft separated from the rocket at an altitude of 70 km and re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, which heated it up to 2,000 degrees.

A female scientist speaking for the Observer Research Foundation, Rajeswari P Rajagopalan talks on the video about how it was necessary to test the shuttle’s heat shield.

Besley states that so far only the US, USSR, Japan and Europe have launched reusable shuttles. He states that NASA’s Space Shuttle flew 135 missions in 30 years before it was finally decommissioned. It has been replaced by the US air forces X-37B test vehicle. This unmanned vehicle was on its third mission, and had been up there for a year. However, the secrecy surrounding its missions have provoked speculation that it is a spy satellite, or is being tested to deliver weapons from space.

He then goes on to discuss the Dreamchaser, the spaceplane being developed by the private Sierra Nevada firm to service the International Space Station. Its first flight is planned for 2019. India’s space shuttle is in a much earlier stage of development, and it’s estimated that it’ll be 10 or 15 years before it is ready to fly.

Besley also discusses how India successfully put a spacecraft in orbit around Mars in 2014, becoming the first Asian nation to do so.

Rajagopan states that China has flourishing military space programme, which is a direct challenge to India, and India has to respond if it is not to be left lagging behind.

Further tests will be carried out on the Indian spacecraft, including on the supersonic scramjet engine which the Indians hope will one day power the spaceplane. The Indians say that their Mars mission cost a tenth of that of other missions to the Red Planet. Besley concludes that if their space shuttle can achieve the same savings, space travel will become much more affordable for all.

A number of countries have developed plans for different spaceplanes. The Russians had their own version of the Space Shuttle, Buran, which looked exactly like the American. It has been mothballed since the Fall of the USSR and has never flown. The French designed a small spaceplane, Hermes, which was to go on top of their Ariane rocket in the 1990s. This was very much like the American Dynosoar spaceplane proposed in the 1950s, but never actually built. The Germans also designed a spaceplane, Sanger, named after one of their leading rocket scientists. This would consist of two craft, a larger plane acting as a first stage, which would piggy-back a second plane into orbit.
And then there was the British HOTOL project of the 1980s which also used airbreathing ramjet engines to take the plane into space. This was never completed because of problems with those same engines. The technology has since been perfected, and a new British spaceplane, Skylon, has been developed. It has been forecast that it will come into service sometime in the next few years, possibly flying from spaceport launch sites in Cornwall or Scotland.

The video shows how sophisticated India’s space programme is, and I’ve no doubt that their entry into space will lower launch costs significantly. While the American shuttle was an amazing piece of engineering, it was massively expensive. It only became competitive as a launch vehicle against Ariane and the other rockets because it was heavily subsidized by the American government.

I look forward to the development of India’s spaceplane and that country joining the US and Russia in launching manned space missions. Perhaps if more countries develop reusable spacecraft, humanity will at last enter a real age of crewed space exploration and colonization.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield Plays David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’

August 11, 2017

This is awesome. It’s a video made by the astronaut Chris Hadfield, of himself playing the Bowie classic, ‘Space Oddity’, aboard the International Space Station. Which, when you think about, couldn’t be a better location.

Astronauts have played music in space before. I’ve got a feeling several Russian cosmonauts had their instruments with them back in the 1980s when they travelled to Mir, and had a jam session up there in orbit.

The SF writer Allan Steele wrote a short story, ‘Live from the Mars Hotel’ about the rise of fictional astronaut band in his anthology, Rude Astronauts. In this tale, a group of spacers on Mars form a band to keep boredom at bay during the long months on the Red Planet, especially when a howling dust storm comes down to blanket the entire world and nobody can venture outside. When they return to Earth, the band briefly find themselves celebrities. However, this rapidly wanes, and they go back to their day jobs after their all-too brief stint as space’s first rock gods.

Part of the reason for this is that they sacrifice their authentic sound for the image manufactured for them by the music industry. Their own sound, honed on Mars, is rough and gritty, authentic country ‘n’ western. However, when they play gigs back on Earth, they’re persuaded to wear spangly jumpsuits and perform with a full orchestra. It’s just too ‘Nashville’ for our roughneck space heroes. The fans sense this, and so stop listening to them.

The shots of the ISS itself and the Soyuz spacecraft, as well as Earth itself, remind me of the opening credits to the 1980s space detective series, Star Cops. This was set forty years in the future, when space was being opened up to industrial exploitation and regular space travel. Unfortunately, it only lasted a single season. Part of the problem was that many of the space/ SF fans, who would have seen it, never heard of it. I also think that it suffered because it was broadcast just after Dr. Who’s cancellation in the mid-1980s, and I think this overshadowed the show. I also think it probably suffered from being mismarketed. I think it was being advertised as detection, rather than SF, and so the trailers for it were aimed at the wrong audience. I’m quite aware, however, that there is an audience, and that there are SF stories that are basically detective yarns. They’re just set in the future with robots, aliens and mutants.

Here’s the beginning titles for Star Cops.

Well, it’s thirty years after the series was aired, and we’re still waiting for the future it envisioned. Star Cops was written by Chris Boucher, who was script editor on Blake’s 7, and was very much intended to be hard, near-future SF. The series boasted that all the technology was based on hard, science fact. Unfortunately, the dream of cheap, mass spaceflight hasn’t happened, possibly because the spaceplanes being designed at the time by Martin Marietta simply proved unviable in practice.

Still, perhaps in Skylon takes off next year, we might really see the space age begin in earnest. In the meantime, I hope there are a few more astronauts, who take the opportunity to lay down a few awesome tracks as they explore the High Frontier.

Future Possible ESA Space Launchers from 2005

March 26, 2017

The British Interplanetary Society published these designs for a possible future space launcher for ESA, the European Space Agency, in their magazine Spaceflight, vol. 47, no.5, for May 2005. Below it was a caption explaining some of them. This read

Artist sketch of several concepts considered under ESA’s Future Launcher Preparatory Programme (FLPP). On top left are the European eXPEriment Re-entry Testbed (EXPERT) capsule and the Intermediate Experiment Vehicle (IVX), a hypersonic re-entry demonstrator. Below are the Phoenix suborbital reusable demonstrator and two concepts advanced reusability demonstrators.

On the right are concepts for future operational launch systems – a fully reusable winged shuttle, a fully expendable launcher and partly reusable launch vehicle.

Maintaining a guaranteed access to space for Europe is one of ESA’s strategic missions. In order to prepare the future European launch systems, which might replace the current Ariane launchers when they will have to retire, ESA and European space industry are reviewing multiple concepts to ensure the continuity of European space transportation while reducing the cost of putting payloads into orbit.

In 2001 it was proposed the ESA Council should set up a programme to assess concepts for future European launchers. The result was the decision to set up the FLPP. This programme, kicked off in 2004, covers the further development of expendable launchers as well as the identification and assessment of technologies required to design partly or fully reusable launch systems.

I’m afraid I don’t know what, if anything, was decided about these spacecraft. For all I know some or all of them may still be under consideration. If Skylon does become a reality and begins flights from a British spaceport in 2020, I think it’ll probably stimulate interest in competing spaceplanes from the other European nations, such as the Hermes spaceplane in France and the Saenger craft in Germany.

British Spaceplane Skylon to Fly in 2020?

February 25, 2017


The papers also reported this week that the government was looking for somewhere to put a spaceport for a British spacecraft, which would take off from ordinary runaways. The spacecraft would be launched in 2020. One of the places suggested as a possible site for the spaceport is Newquay in Cornwall.

This sounds like Skylon, a spaceplane that has been in development by British scientists since the 1980s. The plane will use a mixture of advanced air-breathing engines and rockets to enter space. It’s sort-of the successor to an earlier spaceplane project, HOTOL, which was under development in the 1980s before it was cancelled due to problems developing its air-breathing engines.

This is really great news. There have been other spaceplanes planned by a number of other countries, quite apart from the American space shuttle, and its Russian counterpart, Buran. The Germans had the Sanger spaceplane under consideration in the 1990s, named after the German aerospace engineer and scientist, Eugen Sanger, while the French were also considering the Hermes spacecraft. This was going to be a mini-shuttle launched by their Ariane rocket, rather like the American Dyno-Soar spaceplane of the 1950s. If this does go ahead, it will mean that Britain has once again returned as an independent space power after the cancellation of the Black Knight rocket launcher in 1975.