Story so far


Reaction Engines Ltd was founded in 1989 by Alan Bond, Richard Varvill and John Scott Scott. The three propulsion engineers worked together at Rolls Royce on the RB545 engine, destined for use on the HOTOL vehicle. Reaction Engines was formed to evolve the HOTOL and RB545 concepts into the SABRE engine class and its associated airframe concepts, which are now under active development in Oxfordshire, UK.

Understanding that heat exchangers were far from reaching their physical limits in terms of miniaturisation, the Reaction Engines team began developing high power lightweight heat exchangers and designing new engines and vehicles that they would enable. Once the focus of ‘the three rocketeers’, Reaction Engines is dedicated to realising their vision.

Air-breathing Rocket Engines

The RB545 engine showed great promise for application in a reusable spaceplane, which would be capable of delivering satellites and returning to Earth without jettisoning any parts like conventional rockets. At the time it was viewed as a natural progression from NASA's Space Shuttle, building on the advantages of reusability to the point where space launch operations would become similar to those of traditional aircraft. The potential operational and economic benefits of this approach to Space access were noted by the British Government, who funded Rolls Royce and British Aerospace to design a spaceplane capable of Horizontal Take-Off and Landing. HOTOL, as it was named, was studied in great depth between 1986 and 1988.

HOTOL - A Very British Spaceplane

Following a great deal of effort in the design of both the engine and airframe, it became clear that the HOTOL vehicle configuration had some flaws. Due to the location of the engines at the rear of the airframe and propellant tanks at the front, issues arose with balancing the vehicle as it consumed propellant during ascent. As the fuel tanks at the front became lighter, the centre of mass of the vehicle moved backward, as the centre of pressure moved forward. The resulting mismatch and airframe adaptions to counter it eroded the vehicle's performance.

Alongside other factors at the time, the British government, Rolls Royce and British Aerospace eventually withdrew from HOTOL in 1988. Alan’s promising engine concept also had some hurdles to overcome, especially with regard to the heat exchanger technology. As the heat exchangers cooled the incoming air flow, any moisture present in the air tended to form a layer of frost over the tubes. During operation, this would block the heat exchanger completely in a few seconds, preventing air from entering the engine. Due to HOTOL funding being cut, it would take the three founders over fifteen years to demonstrate a solution to this problem.

SABRE & Skylon - The Beginning

The HOTOL airframe was redesigned to successfully mitigate the movement of weight around the vehicle, with the engines being placed on the wingtips across the centre of the fuselage. This allowed the payload bay to be mounted directly above the wings, and the propellant tanks to be split fore and aft of the centre of the vehicle. This created the ability to counter any shift in weight by taking fuel from the fore or aft tanks as needed to restore and maintain perfect balance.

As a throwback to Alan’s inspiration as a child, the vehicle was named after an art installation built during the Festival of Britain in 1952. The ‘Skylon’ sculpture not only gave a very young Alan hope in the dark times following World War II, but by sheer coincidence followed very similar design principles to the new Skylon vehicle’s hypersonic fuselage structure.

The SABRE engine and Skylon vehicle would undergo a number of iterations over the following decades, but the team now had something to work with – a new vehicle concept which was entirely their own, and an engine which could provide the breakthrough in propulsion needed to power an aircraft all the way into orbit.

Phase 1 - The Laboratory Breakthrough

From 1989-2000, the team focused on producing a robust technical design for the new SABRE engine and the Skylon launch vehicle that it could be used to power. This work was supported by a programme of work to underpin the innovative designs, primarily in the areas of aerothermodynamics, propulsion, structures and control technology.

By 2001, Reaction Engines’ research had advanced to the degree where the team required an experimental lab to further their work. Alan, Richard and John hit a stroke of luck when a potential investor asked to meet them and discuss their spaceplane work. Paul Portelli decided to invest in a company with long-term potential so that the younger generations of his family might benefit in later life.

Paul Portelli’s investment was the first fundamental building block in the Reaction Engines story, from which all further investment, technical breakthroughs and overall success have stemmed. The experimental laboratory programme began in 2001 thanks to Paul Portelli’s investment, eventually proving out the heat exchanger technology and its associated frost control.

Nigel McNair Scott - Our First Major Investor

The team soon discovered that both the heat exchanger and frost control technologies were incredibly challenging, but in 2004 they cracked it. They had a working laboratory scale heat exchanger successfully cooling air without blocking up with frost. No sooner had they built it than they happened upon an encounter with a successful entrepreneur, Nigel McNair Scott, who was looking for an inspirational project to invest in. Alan, Richard and John's passion and enthusiasm for their work convinced Nigel that their technology was credible, and that there existed an opportunity to change the future of humanity by enabling our expansion into the solar system. What the world needed was a reliable space transport infrastructure, and this was the only way to achieve it.

Nigel's investment began the development of a large network of shareholders across the globe. The trust and respect afforded to Nigel by his colleagues and peers allowed them to share in his vision and take a stake in this high risk, high reward project. This network of shareholders now stands 250-strong, including Nigel, the founders, private individuals, commercial investors, and BAE Systems plc.

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Early Technology Development

During a 2008 EU-funded study called LAPCAT I, Reaction Engines found that a SABRE variant named Scimitar would be capable of powering a vehicle at cruise speeds of up to Mach 5. This was our first major government research contract and was worth €2 million. The key technology that needed to be developed was the pre-cooler, and it was this LAPCAT I contract which represented our first opportunity to demonstrate its world-beating heat exchanger design and manufacturing capabilities.

Phase 2 - The Pre-cooler Breakthrough

Using money principally raised from private shareholders, alongside contributions from the UK Space Agency and European Space Agency, the team continued SABRE development and aimed specifically to demonstrate their revolutionary pre-cooler technology. As well as acquiring two subsidiary companies to produce components and assemblies for the programme, we built our own test facility at Culham Science Centre, alongside a design and assembly facility in the Culham Innovation Centre. Our first pre-cooler modules were built and assembled in Abingdon, but later in the programme, the manufacturing facility was consolidated onto the Culham site.

By 2012, we had successfully manufactured a fully operational pre-cooler with the associated frost control systems. Following a test programme which included over 700 rig tests, the pre-cooler had been verified beyond doubt. This prototype unit has seen more time on test than an operational SABRE pre-cooler, and has performed impeccably throughout.

It is because Reaction Engines demonstrated this fundamentally new piece of technology that in 2013 the British Government took notice. Lord David Willetts, who was at the time the Minister for Universities and Science, saw the progress of the UK's space industry and the role we could play in it. Following discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the time, George Osborne, the government decided to commit £60 million to the future of air and spaceflight.

Phase 3 - Testing

In 2015, as we progressed plans for the first SABRE demonstration engine, we were ready for a test campaign of its unique chamber and nozzle configuration. . The test article, which had been successfully fired 15 times during its initial commissioning phase in spring 2015, incorporated several new technologies including a 3D printed and an actively cooled propellant injector system. Aerodynamic data collected from the firings was used to validate in-house computational modelling and advance the nozzle design. The test campaign operated by Airborne Engineering Ltd in Westcott, Buckinghamshire continued throughout 2015, including long duration burns and tests investigating the transition between air- breathing and rocket operation at the end of the year.

Bringing us up to date...

Also during 2015 the company celebrated the installation and commissioning of a state- of- the- art high vacuum furnace at our facility in Culham, which was optimised for the manufacture of the full-scale SABRE pre-cooler technology which will be built, tested and validated over the course of the SABRE Engine Demonstrator Programme.

The end of 2015 saw the announcement of a partnership and strategic investment of £20.6 million with BAE Systems. The announcement represents an important landmark in the transition of Reaction Engines from a company that had been focused on the research and testing of enabling technologies for the SABRE engine, to one that is now focused on development and building capability to become a serious player in the aerospace sector. This working partnership enables Reaction Engines to draw on BAE Systems’ extensive aerospace technology development and project management expertise and provides 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.

Throughout 2015 and 2016 the leadership team was strengthened and the focus moved to executing the programme and aligning the company towards a customer and delivery focus. The appointment of a lead for the new US based subsidiary allows the expansion of the company’s development efforts and engagement with potential US government and industry partners.

Most recently the company celebrated the announcement of the signing of a 10M Euro development contract with the European Space Agency which finalised the UK Governments £60M commitment.

The agreements now in place between Reaction Engines, ESA and the UK Space Agency, together with the working partnership with BAE Systems, set the framework for Reaction Engines to deliver the world’s first SABRE ground demonstrator engine by the end of the decade.

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