£60m for 'spaceplane' rocket engine
The Government is to provide £60 million for a revolutionary new rocket engine that can send astronauts into orbit and accelerate aircraft to five times the speed of sound, a minister said.
David Willetts, minister for universities and science, said the investment in Sabre, a British-designed engine, would provide support at a "crucial stage" to allow a full-scale prototype to be built.
Reaction Engines, the company behind the Sabre project, wants to use the technology on a unique "spaceplane" called Skylon, which will be capable of taking people to Earth's stratosphere in just 15 minutes.
"We're investing £60 million in this and we expect them to go out and find private support as well," Mr Willetts told Radio Five Live.
"But we're backing this because it's technology that has been tested in the lab, it's been assessed by outside experts as right in principle, but now it needs to be built on a full-scale prototype before it can get commercial. We think it's right to support it through that crucial stage. That's where too many great British ideas in the past have failed."
Mr Willetts is expected reveal details of the investment at the UK Space Conference in Glasgow.
Skylon is likely to be viewed a competitor to Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic business, in which people can experience six minutes of weightlessness during a sub-orbital spaceflights.
The engine is specifically aimed at Skylon, a new type of reusable space plane designed by the Reaction team. It would take off from a runway like a normal aircraft and have the ability to carry a 15-tonne payload into low Earth orbit. After landing, it could quickly be turned around for another launch.
Sabre engines could also power a new generation of Mach 5 passenger jets, cutting the flying time from the UK to Australia to less than four hours.
Mr Willett said Government investment in future technology was needed to ensure Britain can be a "serious industrial power in the 21st century." He said: "Whenever it's a matter of investing in the science and the research that's going to get us the jobs of the future, in the technologies of the future, the Chancellor is always willing to back them."