12th February 2016
Gravitational waves detected for the first time
In a historical scientific landmark, researchers have announced the first detection of gravitational waves, as predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity 100 years ago. This major discovery opens a new era of astronomy.
Credits: R. Hurt/Caltech-JPL
For the first time, scientists have directly observed "ripples" in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves, arriving at the Earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. This confirms a major prediction of Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos.
The observation was made at 09:50:45 GMT on 14th September 2015, when two black holes collided. However, given the enormous distance involved and the time required for light to reach us, this event actually occurred some 1.3 billion years ago, during the mid-Proterozoic Eon. For context, this is so far back that multicellular life here on Earth was only just beginning to spread. The signal came from the Southern Celestial Hemisphere, in the rough direction of (but much further away than) the Magellanic Clouds.
The two black holes were spinning together as a binary pair, turning around each other several tens of times a second, until they eventually collided at half the speed of light. These objects were 36 and 29 times the mass of our Sun. As their event horizons merged, they became one – like two soap bubbles in a bath. During the fraction of a second that this happened, three solar masses were converted to gravitational waves, and for a brief instant the event hit a peak power output 50 times that of the entire visible universe.
The gravitational waves were detected by both of the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, USA. The LIGO Observatories are funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and were conceived, built, and are operated by Caltech and MIT. The discovery was published yesterday in the journal Physical Review Letters.
Prof. Stephen Hawking told BBC News: "Gravitational waves provide a completely new way of looking at the Universe. The ability to detect them has the potential to revolutionise astronomy. This discovery is the first detection of a black hole binary system and the first observation of black holes merging. Apart from testing General Relativity, we could hope to see black holes through the history of the Universe. We may even see relics of the very early Universe during the Big Bang at some of the most extreme energies possible."
"There is a Nobel Prize in it – there is no doubt," said Prof. Karsten Danzmann, from the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics and Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany, who collaborated on the study. In an interview with the BBC, he claimed the significance of this discovery is on a par with the determination of the structure of DNA.
"It is the first ever direct detection of gravitational waves; it's the first ever direct detection of black holes and it is a confirmation of General Relativity because the property of these black holes agrees exactly with what Einstein predicted almost exactly 100 years ago."
"We found a beautiful signature of the merger of two black holes and it agrees exactly – fantastically – with the numerical solutions to Einstein equations ... it looked too beautiful to be true."
LIGO measurement of gravitational waves at the Hanford (left) and Livingston (right) detectors, compared to the theoretical predicted values.
By Abbott et al. [CC BY 3.0]
"Scientists have been looking for gravitational waves for decades – but we’ve only now been able to achieve the incredibly precise technologies needed to pick up these very, very faint echoes from across the universe," said Danzmann. "This discovery would not have been possible without the efforts and the technologies developed by the Max Planck, Leibniz Universität, and UK scientists working in the GEO collaboration."
Researchers at the LIGO Observatories were able to measure tiny and subtle disturbances the waves made to space and time as they passed through the Earth, with machines detecting changes just fractions of the width of an atom. At each observatory, the two-and-a-half-mile (4-km) long L-shaped LIGO interferometer uses laser light split into two beams that travel back and forth along tubes kept at a near-perfect vacuum. The beams are used to monitor the distance between mirrors precisely positioned at the ends of the arms. According to Einstein’s theory, the distance between the mirrors will change by an infinitesimal amount when gravitational waves pass by the detector. A change in the lengths of the arms smaller than one-ten-thousandth the diameter of a proton can be detected; equivalent to a human hair's diameter over three light years from Earth.
"The Advanced LIGO detectors are a tour de force of science and technology, made possible by a truly exceptional international team of technicians, engineers, and scientists," says David Shoemaker of MIT. "We are very proud that we finished this NSF-funded project on time and on budget."
"We spent years modelling the gravitational-wave emission from one of the most extreme events in the universe: pairs of massive black holes orbiting with each other and then merging. And that’s exactly the kind of signal we detected!" says Prof. Alessandra Buonanno, director at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam.
"With this discovery, we humans are embarking on a marvellous new quest: the quest to explore the warped side of the universe – objects and phenomena that are made from warped spacetime," says Kip Thorne, Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech. "Colliding black holes and gravitational waves are our first beautiful examples."
Advanced LIGO is among the most sensitive instruments ever built. During its next observing stage, it is expected to detect five more black hole mergers and to detect around 40 binary star mergers each year, in addition to an unknown number of more exotic gravitational wave sources, some of which may not be anticipated by current theory.
4th February 2016
Asteroid mining initiative announced by Luxembourg
The Luxembourg government yesterday announced a series of measures to position the country as a European hub in the exploration and use of space resources. Amongst the key steps undertaken will be the development of a legal and regulatory framework that provides certainty about the future ownership of minerals extracted from Near Earth Objects (NEO's), such as asteroids.
Luxembourg has become the first European country to announce its intention to establish a formal legal framework ensuring that private operators working in outer space can be confident about their rights to the resources they extract, i.e. rare minerals from asteroids. This legal framework will be designed in full consideration of international law. Luxembourg is eager to engage with other countries on this matter within a multilateral framework. Luxembourg will also invest in relevant R&D projects and consider direct capital investment in companies active in this field.
This initiative will nurture an exciting and entirely new space industry – offering unprecedented access to vast metal and mineral resources, for use in Earth orbit and beyond, stimulating economic growth and encouraging new horizons in space exploration.
Luxembourg already has a strong track record in related sectors, with satellite operator SES, established in Luxembourg 30 years ago and now a major global player in its field. The budget allocated to the space resources initiative will be part of the national space budget and will be defined in terms of Luxembourg's contribution to the next European Space Agency (ESA) multiannual budget, to be decided in December 2016.
Luxembourg's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Economy, Étienne Schneider, commented: "Our aim is to open access to a wealth of previously unexplored mineral resources on lifeless rocks hurling through space, without damaging natural habitats. We will support the long-term economic development of new, innovative activities in the space and satellite industries as a key high-tech sector for Luxembourg. At first, our aim is to carry out research in this area, which at a later stage can lead to more concrete activities in space."
Former ESA boss, Jean-Jacques Dordain, will be an adviser. In a press conference, he said that asteroid mining was no longer science fiction; the basic technologies of landing and returning materials from space had essentially been proven: "Things are moving in the United States and it was high time there was an initiative in Europe, and I am glad the first initiative is coming from Luxembourg," he said. "It will give no excuse for European investors to go to California."
Press conference by Étienne Schneider and Jean-Jacques Dordain.
Yves Elsen, Chairperson of the Luxembourg Space Cluster stated: "Over the past three decades, Luxembourg has built up extensive know-how in world-class space related activities. Luxembourg can write history once again by further sustaining the attractiveness of the country for a host of next generation space activities."
Simon P. Worden, Chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation said: "Humanity is on the verge of expansion into the solar system – and then beyond. Using the resources we find there is essential – not only for our expansion into space, but also to ensure continued prosperity here on Earth."
Chris Lewicki, President and CEO of Planetary Resources, commented: "We commend the Government of Luxembourg in leading the world by establishing this new resource industry, thereby enabling the economic development of near-Earth asteroid resources. Planetary Resources looks forward to working with Luxembourg."
Rick Tumlinson, Co-founder and Chair of the Board of Deep Space Industries, stated: "By opening up the resources of space, Luxembourg will help take the pressure off the Earth."
30th January 2016
Giant cloud heading for Milky Way originated from within our galaxy
New observations of Smith's Cloud, which is predicted to collide and merge with our galaxy in 27 million AD, reveal that it originated from within the Milky Way. Like a boomerang effect, it now appears to be heading back to its galactic home.
Smith's Cloud – a vast cloud of hydrogen gas that is speeding towards the Milky Way – did not originate from intergalactic space, but was actually launched out of our own galaxy around 70 million years ago. That's according to a new study by astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, who used the Hubble Space Telescope to determine its location and trajectory with more precision.
It was previously believed that Smith's Cloud, which is 11,000 light years in length, crossed the immense void of intergalactic space on its long journey and was possibly a failed, starless dwarf galaxy. For either of these speculations to be true, it would need to contain mostly hydrogen and helium gas – not the heavier elements made by stars.
These new observations, however, looked at ultraviolet light from the bright cores of three distant galaxies, using Hubble's Cosmic Origins Spectrograph to see how this light was filtered through the cloud. The data revealed its chemical composition for the first time, confirming it to be as sulphur-rich as the Milky Way's outer disk.
"By measuring sulphur, you can learn how enriched in sulphur atoms the cloud is compared to the Sun," explained team leader Andrew Fox. Sulphur is a good gauge of how many heavier elements reside in the cloud.
This means that the Smith Cloud was enriched by material from stars, which could not happen if it were pristine hydrogen from outside the galaxy, or if it were the remnant of a failed galaxy devoid of stars. Instead, the cloud appears to have been ejected from within the Milky Way and is now returning back towards the galactic plane in a kind of boomerang effect.
"The cloud is an example of how the galaxy is changing with time," said Fox. "It's telling us that the Milky Way is a bubbling, very active place, where gas can be thrown out of one part of the disk and then return back down into another."
"Our galaxy is recycling its gas through clouds, the Smith Cloud being one example, and will form stars in different places than before. Hubble's measurements of the Smith Cloud are helping us to visualise how active the disks of galaxies are."
While this settles the mystery of the Smith Cloud's origin, it raises new questions: How did the cloud get to where it is now? What calamitous event could have catapulted it from the Milky Way, and how did it remain intact? Could it be a region of dark matter – an invisible form of matter – that passed through the disk and captured Milky Way gas? Answers to these questions may be found in future research.
Smith Cloud's is moving at nearly 200 miles per second (or about 700,000 mph) and is predicted to collide into the Perseus Arm by 27 million AD. This will trigger an intense burst of star formation where it hits, giving birth to as many as two million additional new stars. Fox and his team have published their study in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. The entry on our timeline has been updated to reflect their new findings.
23rd January 2016
Strong evidence of a ninth planet in our Solar System
Astronomers at the California Institute of Technology have found the strongest evidence yet that a ninth planet – or "Planet X" – is present in our Solar System, orbiting the Sun every 20,000 years.
Researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have found evidence of a giant planet tracing a highly elongated orbit in the far distant reaches of our Solar System. The object, which has been nicknamed "Planet Nine", has a mass about 10 times that of Earth and orbits about 20 times farther from the Sun on average than does Neptune (which orbits the Sun at an average distance of 2.8 billion miles). With a semi-major axis of 300,000 light seconds, or about 0.01 light years, it would take this new planet an estimated 20,000 years to make just one full orbit around the Sun.
The researchers, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown, discovered the planet's existence through mathematical modelling and computer simulations but have not yet observed the object directly.
"This would be a real ninth planet," says Brown. "There have only been two true planets discovered since ancient times, and this would be a third. It's a pretty substantial chunk of our Solar System that's still out there to be found, which is pretty exciting."
Brown notes that Planet Nine, at 5,000 times the mass of Pluto, is sufficiently large that there should be no debate about whether it is a true planet. Unlike the class of smaller objects now known as dwarf planets, it gravitationally dominates its neighbourhood. In fact, it dominates a region larger than any of the other known planets, a fact that Brown says makes it "the most planet-y of the planets in the whole Solar System."
Batygin and Brown describe their work in the current issue of the Astronomical Journal and show how Planet Nine helps explain a number of mysterious features of the Kuiper Belt. The orbital correlations of six distant trans-Neptunian objects, pictured below, were key to their model. After they plotted the orbits of these and various other objects, they matched their simulations perfectly: "When we found that, my jaw sort of hit the floor," says Brown.
Batygin, an assistant professor of planetary science, comments: "Although we were initially quite sceptical that this planet could exist, as we continued to investigate its orbit – and what it would mean for the outer Solar System – we became increasingly convinced it is out there. For the first time in over 150 years, there is solid evidence that the Solar System's planetary census is incomplete."
In a couple of ways, this ninth planet – which seems like an oddball to us – would actually make our Solar System more similar to systems that astronomers are finding around other stars. Firstly, most of the planets around other Sun-like stars have no single orbital range – that is, some orbit at extremely close range to their host stars, while others follow exceptionally distant orbits. Secondly, the most common planets around other stars vary between one and 10 Earth-masses.
"One of the most startling discoveries about other planetary systems has been that the most common type of planet out there has a mass between that of Earth and that of Neptune," explains Batygin. "Until now, we have thought that the Solar System was lacking in this most common type of planet. Maybe we're more normal after all."
The team continue to refine their simulations and learn more about the planet's orbit and its gravitational influence on the Solar System. They believe their study will trigger a worldwide hunt by astronomers – both amateur and professional – to obtain the first direct visual images of Planet Nine. A new generation of observatories such as the James Webb Telescope may do just that. It might also be spotted in old images captured by previous surveys. Given its high mass, it is possible that various moons are there too.
"I would love to find it," says Brown. "But I'd also be perfectly happy if someone else found it. That is why we're publishing this paper. We hope that other people are going to get inspired and start searching."
Brown, well known for the significant role he played in the demotion of Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet adds, "All those people who are mad that Pluto is no longer a planet can be thrilled to know that there is a real planet out there still to be found. Now we can go and find this planet and make the Solar System have nine planets once again."
12th January 2016
World's first virtual reality rollercoaster
In a groundbreaking move that could revolutionise the world of theme parks, the UK's Alton Towers Resort announces today it is launching a rollercoaster entirely dedicated to virtual reality.
Set to open in April, Galactica is the world's first rollercoaster entirely customised for the full virtual reality experience, transforming riders into astronauts and plunging them into outer space with a G force of 3.5, which is more powerful than the 3G of a real rocket launch.
The exhilarating new ride will combine the physical exertion and adrenaline rush of Alton Towers' iconic flying rollercoaster, with the breathtaking sensation of travelling through space. Cutting edge technology launches riders into a different world, complete with virtual space suits, stunning visuals and an exciting adventure. The visuals have been perfectly synchronised to the thrilling twists, turns and loops of the rollercoaster to recreate the sensation of hurtling through space. Visitors will ride in a prone position along the 840-metre long (2,760 ft) track, to recreate the feeling of flying.
Galactica's epic space theme is set to be hugely popular following Tim Peake's maiden voyage into space in December 2015. Stunning, high-quality visuals deliver an immersive experience that its designers claim is breathtakingly realistic. Each rider wears a modified Samsung Gear VR headset. Through this, an on-board artificial intelligence guides them from the launch pad up into space – flying and looping beyond the stars, banking through wormholes and speeding across distant galaxies, revealing the wonders of the cosmos in stunning clarity.
Commenting on the new attraction, Marketing Director Gill Riley says: "Galactica uses groundbreaking technology to give riders a breathtaking and completely unique rollercoaster experience. Tim Peake captured the imagination of millions of Brits last year when he set off on his mission to the International Space Station – and now our visitors can become astronauts too.
"There is nowhere else in the world that people can experience the feeling of a flying rollercoaster combined with soaring through the universe. For two minutes, our guests will be transported into space and we believe Galactica showcases the future for theme parks around the world – it's a complete game changer!"
31st December 2015
James Webb Space Telescope mirror halfway complete
Inside a massive clean room in Greenbelt, Maryland, the ninth of 18 flight mirrors was installed onto the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) this week using a robotic arm. This marks the halfway completion point for the segmented primary mirror.
In recent weeks, a team of engineers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre have been working tirelessly to install the JWST's mirror segments onto the telescope structure. The first piece was fitted on 25th November, and this week it was announced that the ninth piece is now in place.
"The years of planning and practicing are really paying dividends and the progress is really rewarding for everyone to see," said Lee Feinberg, NASA's Optical Telescope Element Manager.
In these NASA images, a robotic arm can be seen lifting and lowering the hexagonal-shaped segments that each measure 4.2 feet (1.3 metres) across and weigh 88 pounds (40 kilograms). After being pieced together, these 18 primary mirror segments will combine to function as a single large 21.3-foot (6.5-metre) mirror. The full installation is expected to be complete in early 2016, with deployment scheduled for 2018.
The James Webb Space Telescope is the scientific successor to NASA's Hubble Space Telescope that was launched in 1990. It will be the most powerful space telescope ever built – using near-infrared wavelengths to see the very first generation of stars that ignited after the Big Bang. The JWST is an international project led by NASA with its partners, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.
By Bobarino [CC BY-SA 3.0]
28th December 2015
InSight mission to Mars postponed until at least 2018
NASA has postponed its launch of the InSight Mars mission in March 2016, due to an air leak in one of the primary scientific instruments. It is currently unclear if the mission will be cancelled entirely or delayed until 2018.
After thorough examination, NASA managers have decided to suspend the planned March 2016 launch of the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission. This follows unsuccessful attempts to repair a leak in part of the prime instrument in the science payload.
"Learning about the interior structure of Mars has been a high priority objective for planetary scientists since the Viking era," said John Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA's HQ in Washington, D.C. "We push the boundaries of space technology with our missions to enable science, but space exploration is unforgiving, and the bottom line is that we're not ready to launch in the 2016 window."
The instrument involved is the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), a seismometer provided by France's Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES). Designed to measure ground movements as small as the diameter of a single atom, it could detect signals from marsquakes, meteorite impacts, local events like dustdevils or landslides, and even the tiny tidal deformation of Mars induced by its moon Phobos. The SEIS requires a vacuum seal around its three main sensors to withstand the harsh conditions of the Martian environment.
"InSight's investigation of the Red Planet's interior is designed to increase understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved," explains Bruce Banerdt, InSight Principal Investigator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. "Mars retains evidence about the rocky planets' early development that has been erased on Earth by internal churning Mars lacks. Gaining information about the core, mantle and crust of Mars is a high priority for planetary science, and InSight was built to accomplish this."
A leak earlier this year that had previously prevented the seismometer from retaining vacuum conditions was repaired, and the mission team was hopeful the most recent fix would be successful. However, during testing last week in extreme cold temperature (-49°F/-45°C) the instrument again failed to hold a vacuum. NASA officials have now determined that there is insufficient time to resolve another leak, and complete the work and thorough testing required to ensure a successful mission.
"It's the first time ever that such a sensitive instrument has been built," said Marc Pircher, CNES Director. "We were very close to succeeding – but an anomaly has occurred, which requires further investigation. Our teams will find a solution to fix it, but it won't be solved in time for a launch in 2016."
The relative positions of Earth and Mars mean the best launch opportunities occur for only a few weeks every 26 months. The current launch window for InSight runs from 4th–30th March 2016.
"When you know you’re going to miss the window, it’s essentially game over, at least for this opportunity," said Grunsfeld. "This is a case where the alignment of the planets matters, and to get from Earth to Mars in the most efficient manner, they’re aligned about every 26 months. So we’re looking at some time in the May 2018 timeframe for the next opportunity."
The mission could even be cancelled altogether: "That is a question that's on the table," according to Grunsfeld. NASA has already spent $525 million on research and development of the spacecraft; a launch delay from 2016 to 2018 automatically triggers a review on its future. NASA is unsure how much the delay and repairs will cost, or whether it will exceed the mission's budget cap. "A decision on a path forward will be made in the coming months," Grunsfeld says.
"The JPL and CNES teams, and their partners, have made a heroic effort to prepare the InSight instrument, but have run out of time given the celestial mechanics of a launch to Mars," said JPL Director Charles Elachi. "It is more important to do it right than take an unacceptable risk."
"In 2008, we made a difficult, but correct decision to postpone the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory mission for two years to better ensure mission success," said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division in Washington. "The successes of that mission's rover, Curiosity, have vastly outweighed any disappointment about that delay."
Since there is still a chance it will go ahead, we have moved the InSight mission from 2016 to 2018 on our timeline.
22nd December 2015
SpaceX rocket achieves historic vertical landing
Following previous failed attempts, U.S. company SpaceX headed by Elon Musk has achieved a historic milestone in space flight by landing an unmanned Falcon 9 rocket vertically. This achievement paves the way to a new generation of reusable rockets – greatly reducing the cost of access to space.
The rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida, delivering 11 communications satellites into low Earth orbit for the Orbcomm-2 mission before returning 10 minutes later about 9.65km (6 miles) south of its launch pad, where it landed in an upright position at 8:39 pm EST.
12th November 2015
The U.S. government has passed historic legislation for asteroid mining
The U.S. government has passed historic legislation for asteroid mining, which allows citizens to own, transport and sell "any asteroid resource or space resource" obtained during commercial operations in space.
Credit: Bryan Versteeg / Deep Space Industries (DSI)
The U.S. Congress has just passed historic legislation (H.R. 2262), recognising the right of U.S. citizens to own space resources they obtain as property and encouraging the commercial exploration and recovery of materials from asteroids, free from harmful interference.
This legislation creates a pro-growth environment for the development of the commercial space industry by encouraging private sector investment and ensuring a more stable and predictable regulatory regime. The law is important for the industry and will be integral to supporting U.S. interests as the commercial space sector continues to expand.
“We are proud to have the support of Congress,” said Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer of Planetary Resources. “Throughout history, governments have spurred growth in new frontiers by instituting sensible legislation. Long ago, the Homestead Act of 1862 advocated for the search for gold and timber, and today, H.R. 2262 fuels a new economy that will open many avenues for the continual growth and prosperity of humanity. This off-planet economy will forever change our lives for the better here on Earth.”
Eric Anderson, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of Planetary Resources, said: “Many years from now, we will view this pivotal moment in time as a major step toward humanity becoming a multi-planetary species. This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and it will foster the sustained development of space.”
Daniel Faber, the CEO of rival firm Deep Space Industries (DSI), also commented: “This is a very thoughtfully worded piece of legislation that is sensitive to the existing Outer Space Treaty, and yet moves the ball far forward in terms of giving companies like DSI the legal certainty we need to invest in capitally intensive missions and equipment.”
Previously confined to the realm of science fiction, asteroid mining has begun to seem like a serious possibility in recent years. Thanks to the entrepreneurial efforts of Planetary Resources, DSI and other firms, new technologies are being developed that could soon unlock the vast untapped metal and mineral wealth buried throughout the Solar System. In July of this year, Planetary Resources successfully deployed its Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R) spacecraft from the Kibo airlock of the International Space Station (ISS). This test featured a number of core technologies that will be incorporated into future spacecraft. A larger and more advanced demonstration craft, the Arkyd-6 (A6), is now planned.
Eventually, these prototypes will be followed by probes capable of rendezvousing with Near-Earth objects (NEOs) identified as being rich in resources. They will deploy machines able to drill into rocks and extract their contents for in-situ utilisation (e.g. construction materials and rocket propellant) or return to Earth. Planetary Resources is confident it will begin commercial operations in the 2020s.
With sufficient commitment and long-term investment, asteroid mining could solve the looming resource shortage here on Earth. A single 500-metre asteroid could contain more platinum group metals than have ever been mined in human history. Establishing a solid legal foundation for the development of space resources is a necessary first step in opening the frontier. The new legal framework passed this week is essential for serious investment to occur in what may become one of the biggest industries of all time.
2nd November 2015
BAE Systems and Reaction Engines to develop a groundbreaking new aerospace engine
BAE Systems and Reaction Engines Ltd. today announced a strategic investment by BAE Systems and a working collaboration to accelerate the development of SABRE – a new class of aerospace engine that combines both jet and rocket technologies and could potentially revolutionise hypersonic flight and the economics of space access.
Under the terms of the agreement, BAE Systems will invest £20.6 million in Reaction Engines to acquire 20 per cent of its share capital and also enter into a working partner relationship. The working partnership will draw on BAE Systems' extensive aerospace technology development and project management expertise and will provide Reaction Engines with access to critical industrial, technical and capital resources to progress towards the demonstration of a ground-based engine – a key milestone in the development of the technology. Under the agreement, BAE Systems will enter into a preferred supplier relationship with Reaction Engines in certain agreed areas and will have representation on the board of Reaction Engines.
Reaction Engines is a privately held company based in the United Kingdom developing the technologies needed for an advanced combined cycle air-breathing rocket engine called SABRE (Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine). This new class of aerospace engine is designed to enable aircraft to operate from standstill on the runway to speeds of over five times the speed of sound in the atmosphere. SABRE can then "transition" to a rocket mode of operation, allowing spaceflight at speeds up to orbital velocity, equivalent to 25 times the speed of sound. Reaction Engines' technology has undergone extensive independent technical assessments which have confirmed its viability and potential applications.
A key element of the SABRE engine is a breakthrough in aerospace engine technology of ultra-lightweight heat exchangers that allow the cooling of very hot airstreams from over 1,000 °C to minus 150 °C in less than 1/100th of a second, whilst preventing the formation of ice at sub-zero temperatures.
The UK Government is expected to confirm grant funding of £60 million for Reaction Engines to further SABRE's development towards a ground-based test engine and to investigate its applications for space access vehicles. Together with BAE Systems' investment, this injection of capital will support the transition from a research phase into development and testing of the engine. The ground-based test engine is expected to be ready by 2020 and the first unmanned test flights could happen by 2025.
Mark Thomas, Managing Director of Reaction Engines: "Today's announcement represents an important landmark in the transition of Reaction Engines – from a company that has been focused on the research and testing of enabling technologies for the SABRE engine, to one that is now focused on the development and testing of the world's first SABRE engine. BAE Systems brings industry-leading capabilities in programme delivery and wider engineering systems integration that will accelerate the development of SABRE as a new engine class and its vehicle applications. This partnership builds on the outstanding technical breakthroughs that Reaction Engines has made and the positive assessments received on the potential of the technology from experts at the European Space Agency and the United States' Air Force Research Laboratory."
Nigel Whitehead, Group Managing Director, Programmes & Support, BAE Systems: "Reaction Engines is a highly innovative UK company and our collaboration gives BAE Systems a strategic interest in a breakthrough air and space technology with significant future potential. Our partnership with Reaction Engines is part of our sustained commitment to investing in and developing prospective emerging technologies. BAE Systems' considerable engineering and development expertise will help support the delivery of the first demonstrator for the SABRE engine."
Jo Johnson MP, UK Minister for Universities and Science said: "This investment by BAE Systems reflects the strength of British engineering and technology and our ambitions as a leading space nation. I am sure that this partnership will strengthen both organisations – helping to create more jobs in the UK's growing space sector and ultimately to make the SABRE engine a reality."