An elegant jet taking off, flying through the atmosphere and launching into space. It’s been a staple in science fiction for decades. Modern space launches couldn’t look more different, though.
The vision of a “space plane” seems like an artifact of the past, thanks to the the sheer difficulty of escaping earth’s gravity, and modern space flight is associated with the modern, vertically-launching, semi-disposable, liquid- or solid-fueled rocket. Even Elon Musk’s famed SpaceX still uses traditional rockets, albeit partially reusable ones.
In an unassuming facility near Edmonton, however, an unassuming Canadian company with an oil and gas heritage may be on the verge of changing the way that we interact with space. Humanity may get its space plane after all.
From the Runway to Orbit
The technical term, HOTOL ( “Horizontal Take Off and Landing”) describes exactly what you’d expect: a spacecraft that takes off from a runway like a plane, ascends through the atmosphere like a plane, but then switches to a rocket engine and keeps on climbing until it achieves orbit. Then, after breaking orbit, it lands much like a plane does. No boosters, no launch pads, no vertical ascent, no parachutes.
This may be somewhat familiar to many SpaceQ readers, not just from science fiction, but from the United States’ Shuttle program. The shuttle had a disposable fuel tank and reusable boosters, and did launch vertically, but it was still a winged manned aircraft that landed on a runway like a plane does.
While it may seem impractical, there are serious advantages to the spaceplane concept. Since the spaceplane uses air as reaction mass for much of its ascent, it needn’t carry as much weight, allowing for greater payloads. The reusability of a spaceplane will reduce the cost of launch, just as SpaceX’s reusable boosters do—but unlike SpaceX’ boosters, it doesn’t require reaction mass for landing.
The issue, however, is heat. As the speed of a traditional air-breathing turbojet engine goes up, the compression effects make the temperature of air entering the engine rise as well, eventually rising to temperatures that a jet engine cannot withstand. Supersonic jet engines are made of heavy, durable parts to reduce this problem, but their weight makes them unsuitable for spaceflight. Ramjets and Scramjets can work, but cannot operate at sub-sonic speeds, meaning that they either need entire secondary engines or need to be launched from a larger jet. Both are impractical.
It’s a seemingly intractable problem. Most of the aerospace industry has de-prioritized single-stage space planes, believing that it can’t be solved. Even pioneering private space companies like SpaceX have focused, at most, on reusable multi-stage traditional rocket boosters. China and Russia are experimenting with supersonic and hypersonic flight, but have traditional rocket-based space programs; and while the USAF’s X-51 test program does still still experiment with hypersonic Scramjet flight, actual space planes aren’t an American priority.
Reaction Engines’ Spaceplane Efforts
In the United Kingdom, though, it’s a different story. Since 1986, after the cancellation of the UK’s official HOTOL program, a company named “Reaction Engines Limited” (REL) has worked away at the space plane problem. Formed by engineers who had been involved in the UK’s HOTOL program, REL has been developing their “Skylon” space design for the better part of three decades, creating iteration after iteration on the idea.
After having gone through a variety of these Skylon iterations, the focus of REL at the moment is their custom-made “SABRE” engine. The “Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine” is a hypersonic engine that resolves the heat issue through the use of a powerful (if delicate) pre-cooler. The pre-cooler uses liquid hydrogen to reduces the air’s temperature, allowing for much faster flight. The engine switches between two modes: an air-breathing mode that combines a turbo-compressor with the pre-cooler to allow for hypersonic air-breathing flight, and a “closed-cycle” mode that employs liquid oxygen and hydrogen as the reaction mass, much like more conventional rocket propulsion systems.
While there have been challenges — particularly with the SABRE’s all-important pre-cooler — they are slowly working away at building and testing the SABRE and its components. They’ve received a lot of positive attention, some fascinated press, and a growing amount of support from the British government. While they’re still struggling to complete and test the SABRE, they had no reason at all to believe that they had to worry about competition. Everybody else is just building rockets.
That’s changed, very quietly, thanks to Pradeep Dass and Space Engine Systems (SES).
Pradeep Dass and the Down-To-Earth Spaceship Engineers
At first glace, Pradeep Dass seems far removed from the rarified world of aerospace propulsion. A mechanical engineer by trade, Dass made his fortune in the Canadian oil and gas sector, supplying pump technology to Canada’s once-booming energy companies.
Even then, Dass and his team had a reputation for bucking industry trends. Dass and his engineers sought to create a twin-screw multiphase pump in the 1990s, for example, and even though sectoral leaders told them it was “impossible”, his team created the “impossible” pump after a few years of work. Now they’ve turned their attention to space.
In conversation with SpaceQ, Dass said that he does not consider himself a dreamer. Dass is an engineer and a businessman, one who has the mind of an engineer and businessman. He’s looking at the potential market, and always paying attention to spinoff technologies, the cost of materials, and the capabilities of potential competition. He prefers proven and understood technologies, and continually tells his team, “please don’t reinvent the wheel”.
And unlike many other business owners, Dass also isn’t a self-promoter. For a man building a potentially revolutionary aerospace technology, with a history of innovation, Dass is extraordinarily down-to-earth. His team isn’t focused on self promotion, hype or glory — whether it’s energy tech or space tech, they’re a team that’s focused on creating and selling technology.
The technology, however, may be revolutionary.
The Quiet Determination of Space Engine Systems
Like REL, Space Engine Systems is focused on building an engine. The DASS engine, like the SABRE, functions in different ways at different speeds. At low speeds, it operates like a classical turbojet engine using hydrocarbon fuels. At supersonic and hypersonic speeds, it shifts over to liquid hydrogen, and shifts into a ramjet mode. Like the SABRE, the DASS engine uses a heat exchanger to resolve the heat issues of high-velocity air-breathing engines; and, like the SABRE, the DASS engine’s GNX variant will shift over to using an onboard oxidizer as it leaves the atmosphere.
Where it differs is in the ways it reflects Dass and SES’s commerce-driven, no-nonsense attitude towards their work. Dass and his team don’t try to reinvent the wheel. They aren’t custom-building every element. In fact, they aim to use proven and effective technologies and techniques wherever they can, with an aim to take it commercial as soon as possible. They’re already working on a version of the DASS engine that can be used for hypersonic intra-atmospheric flights, and are aggressively exploring how to exploit any spinoff technologies.
They even use the engine’s preexisting liquid hydrogen supply for cooling, instead of carrying extra liquid helium like the SABRE engine does.
Pradeep Dass’ mandate for SES is very clear: “we have to get the engines out”.
They also differ in their appetite for publicity. Dass and his team have been very quiet about their work — attending trade shows and meeting with potential investors, but avoiding the press or too much self promotion. They have a wikipedia page, some promotional material on their website, and a few promotional videos here and there. But compared to the high-profile promotion of a SpaceX, Blue Origin, or REL, they’re silent as ghosts.
It was only after receiving advice from Maritime Launch president Steve Matier that Dass decided to start reaching out to the press.
SES’s Potential Nanoparticle Edge
There is one exception to their down-to-earth commercialized approach, and it’s SES’ big technological play: nanotechnology and nanoparticles. The DASS engine uses nano-scale technology throughout its entire combustion process.
The DASS heat exchanger is being built with a nano-scale coating that increases the durability and heat transfer ability of the exchanger. The coating is proprietary, but research suggests that it may serve as nano-scale “fins” that improve convection while avoiding pressure drop. It also uses nano-particles as part of its coolant; SES materials say that a suspension of liquid hydrogen and nano-particles (like Boron Carbide) has increased the heat exchanger’s capability by up to 40% with no added weight penalty.
The DASS engines will also incorporate nano-particles into its fuel mix. Working with University of Calgary researchers, SES has found that mixing metallic fuels in with regular aerospace fuels will make the engine more efficient and more effective, and do so at all speeds. The DASS engines achieve this by seeding a constant flow of metallic nanoparticles (currently Boron Carbide) into the airflow — particles which serve to enhance heat transfer rates, are comparatively simple to store, and feature excellent energy density per volume.
The use of nanotech, if it works in practice, will make their air-breathing hybrid engines faster, lighter, more powerful and more likely to be able to break orbit. Dass is supremely confident; he actually sees the use of nanoparticles as a straightforward improvement that everybody should be already investigating. He’s advocated it with other organizations, and he proffered a variety of materials demonstrating how the SES approach compares with other hypersonic jets, rocket-based launch systems, or their REL counterparts. Their materials show that their approach may lead to an engine that is more durable, more reliable, lighter, and more efficient than its counterparts.
Yet, at least for now, SES stands alone.
Fundraising and Partnership Challenges
Standing alone has been their great challenge. While REL now receives significant support from the UK government, SES has enjoyed no similar support here in Canada. SES has largely had to self fund, with the help of friends and family and a few quiet investors.
They’ve approached a variety of potential backers and partners, with limited success. The Canadian Space Agency was interested in their technology, but simply didn’t have the budgetary capacity to support a novel propulsion system. Dass said that their reaction was that “they would love to help, but they have a very limited budget”. The Department of National Defence had a similar reaction; even though spaceplanes have obvious military applications, they believed that it simply wasn’t within their mandate. SES got a similar reaction from the National Research Council, who stated that they aren’t focused on propulsion technology. They have received some Canadian government support for research and testing, partially at the University of Calgary, but little more.
Outside of Canada, there is slightly more interest, but challenges linger. Dass revealed that they are making some quiet connections in the United States, but cannot share more at this time, and the United States appears remarkably disinterested in hypersonic technology compared to its geopolitical counterparts in Russia and China. SpaceX was approached, and believed SES’ technology was valid, but maintained that they are “a rocket company”.
Russia did express an interest in SES and the DASS engines, but Dass was reluctant to partner with Russia on this technology. And while they did speak with REL about the potential issues with their lightweight-but-fragile heat exchanger, the potential possibilities of the DASS engine approach, and the value of nanoparticles, REL has maintained their present course.
In fact, it’s their alliance with Matier that has been their greatest asset. Dass worked closely with Matier to choose launch facilities, and Matier has been a key champion for SES in the Canadian space sector. Matier was the person who convinced Dass and SES to reach out to the press. Despite Matier being in the rocket launching business, he’s been a strong believer in the future of Canada becoming a key player in hypersonic propulsion.
SES is now selling a round of shares with a total valuation of $90 million dollars. Dass said that they’ve received serious interest. Even if it isn’t from the traditional aerospace sector, there are enough people who want to diversify from the energy sector that they’re optimistic about funding, though they still plan to stay a private company until 2023. Dass’ other businesses in the energy sector are doing quite well.
Successful Testing and the Search for High-Mach Vehicle Bodies
Testing has been generally successful. After finishing their preliminary materials testing, SES tested their heat exchanger under high thermal loads. The nanoparticle technique was quite successful, removing 3.9 MW of heat in under 11 milliseconds. Subsequent engine testing went well as well; Dass said that “the engines tested quicker than we thought and successfully, with 4 kilonewton engines already tested.” Having completed small engine testing, they are creating a ground testing facility for the full-sized engines that simulates Mach 3.2 (and eventually Mach 5) conditions at an altitude of 30 km, which will be the world’s first multi-fuel test facility for air breathing engines.
The biggest issue for Dass and his team isn’t engines, but vehicles. In order to move forward with their testing, and especially to demonstrate the engine’s capabilities, they’ll need vehicle bodies that are capable of handling high-mach flight. Dass and SES are discovering that they’re hard to acquire, though. The Canadian military has them, but isn’t interested in working with SES; the NRC has high-mach vehicle bodies as well, but they are all under the watchful eye of DND as well. The American military hasn’t expressed interest, nor has its partners like Boeing or Lockheed-Martin; and Dass is as wary of accepting Russian equipment as he is Russian funding.
There are other post-Concorde companies that are working on supersonic and hypersonic flight. These companies, too, just don’t have high-mach vehicle bodies to spare for Dass and his team. Getting the bodies is a real struggle.
Dass admits that they may simply have to build them themselves. It will be comparatively costly; 25-50 million dollars will need to go into creating the vehicle bodies. If they get funding, they can get it done comparatively quickly; they could have the bodies built and ready for testing in less than 8 months. Otherwise, they may have to wait until 2023 before they can finally prove the DASS engines’ capabilities.
That is why Dass and SES are so focused on fundraising right now, and why they’re opening up to the press. The engines are ready to test on a real high-mach vehicle body. They just need to somehow acquire or build them. Dass says that once they do, he’s confident that they’ll fulfill their mandate. “All we need is to exit to space, and then it’s about coming back”.
Dass’ Ultimate Goal: The Moon
SES has a lot of spinoff technologies in mind for the DASS engines, and see markets all over the world for supersonic and hypersonic engines. But unlike REL, which is laser-focused on satellite and space station equipment transportation, SES’ core goal is much loftier: supporting a Moon base.
Dass is a big believer that there will be a Moon base sooner rather than later. He believes that the Moon base will be a key hub for further space exploration; its comparatively lower gravity will make it ideal for launches to elsewhere in the solar system. And while the regolith of the Moon isn’t as tempting for mining as, say, asteroids are, there are still a lot of valuable resources, like helium and water.
Once that happens, there will need to be frequent transportation between Earth and the Moon, and Dass believes that reusable spaceplanes are the best way to handle that traffic. That’s part of why Space Engine Systems has the focus that it does. Its spaceplane would be a workhorse machine: one that’s resilient and reusable, and that gets the job done of transporting goods, tools, materials and even personnel to and from the Moon Base quickly, efficiently, and cheaply.
“Get the Engine Out”
Still, a Moon base is a very long way off. Right now, Dass and his team are focused on testing their engines, getting high-mach vehicle bodies to test with, and making supersonic and hypersonic engines available on the mass market.
They’re confident that they have the solutions they need. They’re confident in their tech and their team. All that remains is getting the support and resources they need to make it happen. Considering their relentless market focus — SES has a variety of applications and spinoff technologies that are either ready for market or coming online soon — it seems unlikely that they’ll be hurting for resources for long.
SES aren’t dreamers, and they aren’t self-promoters. They’re scientists, engineers, and technicians, all united with one goal: “Get the engine out.”