Successful precooler test this summer will release £200M in private investment
Phase 3 to run 2011-2014, result in working SABRE engine demonstrator
Requirements review results published "very soon"
REL expects first vehicle preorders in Phase 3
Suborbital prototype to fly transatlantic in 2016
The news that Reaction Engines will stage a critical test of the precooler technology for their SABRE air-breathing rocket engine this summer, has caused significant interest in the technology press, including reports by Space.com and The Register. It was reported that a successful test would trigger an additional $350M in private investment, a significant sum in NewSpace terms, to fund continued development of the SABRE engine. To glean some more information about the development of the SABRE and the Skylon SSTO, I asked a few questions of Mark Hempsell, Future Programmes Director at REL, and he very kindly responded.
* Is this report accurate? I'm particularly interested in the statement 'Private funding is lined up to see [Skylon] through all stages of development'.
The $350M is a conversion from £200 million. Yes, the plan is for all the funding of both SABRE and SKYLON to be from private investment without any further direct Government financial support.
* Are you able to reveal the identity of the organisations providing this next $350M tranche of funding? I can quite understand if you can't -- in that case, would it be fair to describe them simply as 'large institutional investors'?
Yes 'large institutional investors' is accurate and as far as we can go.
* What is REL's preferred terminology for the next phase of development 2011-2014, funded by the $350M of new investment? (I'm not sure if I should simply describe it as 'Phase 2'?
The next phase is called Phase 3 as the ESA supported programme was divided into two phases. This is for the SABRE engine. Although there is money for the SKYLON airframe in the next phase, it will only have a separate lifecycle with separate phases when it is taken over by the prime contractor who will be building it.
* When is UKSA expected to publish the results of the Skylon requirements review?
Very soon as we understand it – we will include you in the press release when it is ready.
* How many employees does REL have now? How many is it expected to have by end 2014?
Currently we are around 50 people by 2014 we should be a few hundred mostly technician grade production workers. However remember by then many other companies will be working on the project.
* At what point will the first flight-capable vehicle (including subscale test airframes) be produced? Where would it be flown from?
A soft-tooled preproduction prototype (a system demonstrator) will fly in 2016 but this will not be orbital. Our assumption is that it will fly between Kourou and NEAT but that is not fixed. [[NEAT is the North European Aerospace Test Range, Europe's largest overland flight test range, located in northern Sweden]]
* REL has been acquiring engineering subsidiaries to provide competencies in key areas of technology. Will the growth of the REL group of companies accelerate over 2011-2014? What new skills and technologies will you need to buy in during the next phase?
At the moment we have no plans for further acquisitions or expansions of technology areas only expansion of the existing areas. But that might change as the details of the next phase are worked through.
* How would you compare this investment with that by Draper Fisher Jurvetson in SpaceX, and Aabar Investments in Virgin Galactic? Do you see this expression of confidence in REL having wider implications for the development of UK commercial space as a whole?
I am not sure we can do a comparison as we do not know the details of the other investment. SpaceX is closer to what we are doing but their solution and route to market is very different, and investors are investing in a proven vehicle and a proven customer (the US government).
I am not convinced we have a found a funding model for other commercial space ventures as the things that seem to “press the button” are unique to SKYLON.
"Following the tests successful completion the next phase of the project, Phase 3, will commence - a £220m engine demonstrator which will establish the capability for a UK-based manufacturing of the SABRE engine. Phase 3 would also act catalytically to enhance existing skills and capabilities in the UK.
"It is anticipated that during Phase 3 (2011-2013) pre-orders for SKYLON vehicles will be received, and the vehicle manufacturing consortium formed. There has already been extensive interest on the part of National Space Agencies and major Aerospace companies in being involved in this development programme – interest which over the next nine months must be transformed into concrete agreements which will facilitate the flow of private capital into the project."
To place the Skylon Phase 3 investment in context, it is:-
larger than the $60M investment by Draper Fisher Jurvetson in SpaceX, and the $200M by Aabar Investments in Virgin Galactic put together.
larger than any single company award in NASA COTS or CCDev Phase 1 or 2.
…which is why I think the phrase "act catalytically to enhance existing skills and capabilities in the UK" is particularly telling. With this financial injection, REL will be able to grow a substantial subcontractor and supplier chain in the UK with advanced manufacturing capabilities, which may well also be applied to other UK NewSpace projects. A rising tide lifts all spaceships? We can but hope…
In the meantime, I have many more questions about the Skylon project, and I hope to pursue them in future articles. Watch this space!