For a small technology company trying to revolutionise low-cost commercial space travel, the sale of a minority stake to aerospace giant BAE Systems could turn out to be the defining moment in its quest.
Its Sabre engines for commercial air travel can go from zero to five times the speed of sound, and up to 25 times the speed of sound for space travel.
Experts believe hypersonic air travel could enable people to one day journey anywhere in the world within four hours. At Reaction Engines, based in Oxfordshire, they think this could be a reality within 10 to 15 years.
However, before last month’s deal, Reaction was a highly respected research business, but with limited funding had been effectively stuck as a start-up since its foundation in 1989.
Now, with the backing of a major strategic partner, the 75-employee company and its team of rocket scientists should be course to expand their orbit.
With BAE’s backing and an additional government funding commitment of £60m, Reaction will be able to move to the next critical engineering development stage, while remaining an independent company.
Guiding its “unique” Sabre engine concept towards a seminal breakthrough has been an evolutionary experience.
Recently-installed managing director Mark Thomas admits the deal took time. “They [BAE Systems] have put in £21m, which implies the company is valued at £100m,” he says.
“I spent much of the five months I’ve been here working on that process. It was very clear to me that we needed a big industrial aerospace company and one of the key capabilities we were looking for was systems integration.
“It’s a combination of jet engine technologies and rocket technologies, so actually it’s a complex system (requiring everything to function as one unit). When we looked at organisations with that ability, BAE Systems were top of the list.”
With hindsight, his arrival in May was ideally timed. A Cambridge engineering graduate, Thomas has spent a quarter of a century working in the defence and civil aerospace divisions of Rolls-Royce.
His previous position was as a chief engineer in the industrial giant’s civil aerospace arm, making engines for super-jumbo jets. Prior to that, he held similar posts working on the Typhoon fighter and the Trent 900 jet engine that powers the world’s largest passenger airliner, the Airbus A380.
Photo: John Lawrence/TELEGRAPH
The uniqueness of Reaction’s brainchild is largely founded on an ability to accommodate both space and air modes of travel in one engine.
Thomas describes the company’s Sabre – or Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine – as “the next big thing”. When might it become reality?
“I think we are at the start of a fantastic ride. It really is the start of something very big.”
The intent is to double in size in the next two years. Even with 150 highly qualified people, Reaction will probably need to stretch that figure to complete the programme, something Thomas is content to admit.
It remains a business without a product, yet it has no immediate funding requirement beyond its faithful private and institutional investors, the Government’s pledge, revenue from two fabrication subsidiaries and its new partner’s stake-holding. There was a key turning point in 2012, when the company demonstrated the enabling technology that is the key to its concept.
“Many people – and I would say Rolls-Royce included – did not believe that would be possible,” Thomas reveals. “That triggered the government interest and the work that’s been done since, not just by the company but also with (validation from) the European Space Agency and the US Air Force Research Laboratory. That has given BAE Systems the confidence to join.
“If we can get the Sabre engine demonstrated, then there is no end to the possibilities – and we are not able, here and now, to predict all of those things – but there’s a hell of a lot to look forward to.”
Ultimately, Reaction Engines will need to the viability of Sabre’s possible applications, whether for traditional airlines or those trying to conquer space travel such as SpaceX, the US spacecraft designer headed by business magnate Elon Musk, which Thomas views as a potential customer.
Given the slower than expected uptake of the A380 super-jumbo, what sort of customers will be in the market for hypersonic engines that propel planes at five times the speed of sound?
“The A380 example is a great one,” Thomas counters. “It was an extremely bold step for Airbus to take. In contemplating an aircraft like an A380 they clearly saw a market opportunity, and it’s not sold as quickly as perhaps predicted.
“But if you look at an airline like Emirates, it is clearly showing how you can build almost an entire airline around a product like the A380. They’ve changed the long-haul concept through that product.
“Time is critical. What we’ll see with hypersonic air travel, and it’s clearly a long way out there, is that it gives people that option of travelling anywhere in the world within four hours. That would be a fantastic offering and we believe there is a market for that.
“This is a really versatile propulsion system that we’re developing. It is an air-breathing rocket engine that can go from zero to five times the speed of sound and for the space-access variant, 25 times the speed of sound, and has a huge range of operation. The other advantage of this engine is that it’s highly scaleable.”
The ability to up or down-size the concept is undoubtedly a trump card. Reaction has already studied a large “civil high-speed air transport vehicle”. It seats 300 people, on a par with larger versions of Boeing’s twin engine 787 Dreamliner.
“There would be a business case for a vehicle of that nature,” Thomas contends. “It doesn’t preclude you doing something that could be a step towards that. I think really the defining moment is going to be when we test the first engine. We’re planning to do that by the end of this decade.”
Thomas estimates that the world is 10-15 years away from commercial space flight. Returning to comparisons with SpaceX and other rocket engineers, he acknowledges Musk’s ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets, but points to a key differentiator.
Photo: Reaction Engines
“We don’t see them as competitors because they’re working with the current generation of rocket technologies. They’re doing great things, I have huge admiration for SpaceX. But what we are doing is pitching ourselves as the next generation.
“I actually look at those guys and say they will be our customers one day. They will come to us for an engine or we will work with them to help deliver a vehicle concept.
“We don’t see anybody working on anything like Sabre. To do something with a single propulsion system is the dream ticket.
“We are in a prime position at the moment and we have to exploit that for us, for UK industry, for the next generation of engineers and scientists.”
Does the sheer magnitude of the opportunity mean the company is likely to end up being fully acquired by a much larger enterprise in the future?
“We haven’t written the script for how this is going to go,” he says. “But we do know that to develop the entirety of this engine, and certainly a product that it’s going to power is not going to be done by Reaction Engines as an independent company.
“We see us being in some form of bigger industry collaboration and/or another company. But it’s way too early for us to be making predictions on that,” says Thomas.