The Return of Air-Breathing Engines

I was reading recently about the Skylon space plane. A pretty cool name, which reminds me of those robotic guys with the light bouncing back and forward where their eyes should be  – the vintage Cylons of Battlestar Galactica.

The Skylon spaceplane is a concept for a Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO) plane, which has been a holy grail for the aerospace industry for many decades.

Although the theory of payload Vs rocket mass takes concepts in the direction of multi-staging and non-renewable spacecraft – such as the good old Saturn V and modern equivalent the SpaceX Falcon 9 – the ability to reuse the same spacecraft also makes good economic sense. All rocketry components are damn expensive. Besides it’s such a damn cool idea to be able to get into a spaceplane at the local airport, taxi down the runway and blast into orbit.

What may make this particular SSTO dream feasible is the return of the air-breathing engine. Some of you might remember the HOTOL concept from the 1980s.  The moniker stood for Horizontal TakeOff and Landing. I remember being really excited about this joint venture between Rolls Royce and British Aerospace, but apparently funding was cut in 1988 due to serious design flaws and lack of advantage over contemporary launch systems.

Like HOTOL, Skylon features air-breathing engines that use oxygen in the atmosphere as the fuel oxidant [it later switches to liquid oxygen in space]. The majority of fuel tankage is reserved for hydrogen, removing one heck of lot of weight compared to say a shuttle with its big external tank of hydrogen and oxygen. One key feature of the Skylon’s SABRE engines is the cooling of the intake air, which enables a doubling of the efficiency.

The estimated top speed of Skylon is over 30,000 km/h. This gives the craft plenty of scope to fill the niche left by the ill-fated Concorde, with sub-orbital flight times of around 4 hours from London to Sydney. Having suffered through two 30 hour flights to the USA in economy I can’t wait.

The initial goal is to carry payloads to space stations by 2022. English developer Reaction Engines hope to have a working prototype flying by 2016, and a fleet of the craft over the next decade. They are impressive craft. Each will be approximately 82 metres in length with a price tag of around $1.1 billion US.

The spaceplane is a very sleek looking craft. Check out the wikipedia page for graphics.


Did anyone manage to get a look at asteroid 2012 DA14 on its fly-by? I have been down with the flu so I did not manage the early viewing window here in Brisbane. You can check out coverage of the asteroid here.

In the mean time, you will be thrilled to know that the heaviest element yet known to science has been discovered!

The new element is Governmentium (Gv). It has one neutron, 25 assistant neutrons, 88 deputy neutrons and 198 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312.

These 312 particles are held together by forces called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lefton-like particles called peons.
Since Governmentium has no electrons or protons, it is inert. However, it can be detected, because it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A tiny amount of Governmentium can cause a reaction normally taking less than a second to take from four days to four years to complete.

Governmentium has a normal half-life of 2- 6 years. It does not decay but instead undergoes a reorganisation in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places.

In fact, Governmentium’s mass will actually increase over time, since each reorganisation will cause more morons to become neutrons, forming isodopes.

This characteristic of moron promotion leads some scientists to believe that Governmentium is formed whenever morons reach a critical concentration. This hypothetical quantity is referred to as critical morass.

When catalysed with money, Governmentium becomes Administratium, an element that radiates just as much energy as Governmentium since it has half as many peons but twice as many morons. All of the money is consumed in the exchange, and no other byproducts are produced.

Astronomical Visitors – Hello 2012 DA14

Next Friday a 46m (151 feet) diameter asteroid is going to be making a fly-by of Earth. The microscopic aliens who inhabit the little world, roughly the mass of an aircraft carrier, have prepared their miniature cameras to get nice snaps of the weird ‘big people’ below as we go about our daily lives. We’ll be watching too.

The asteroid, poetically dubbed 2012 DA14 in accordance with the naming convention, will pass within 27,680 km (17,200 mi) of Earth. Geosynchronous orbit is at 36,000km, so this visitor will actually pass between the orbit of various GPS and TV satellites and Earth. NASA scientists assure there is no chance of collision.

It will zip past at around 27,000 km/h (17,500 mph), and should be visible through binoculars and telescopes.

The best viewing location will be Indonesia, but Australian watchers should get a pretty good view as well. It will be visible from around 0624 Australian Eastern Daylight Time (i.e. Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra etc) on February 16 – that 524am for us Brisbanites (that’s our Saturday morning). The asteroid should be visible as a small star moving against the background of stars.

A telescope at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville will broadcast its view of the event from 6pm to 9pm USA ET on February 15.

Conventional wisdom says that asteroids of around 50m in diameter pass by Earth every 40 years or so, but are only expected to impact the Earth around every 1200 years.

The asteroid is thought to be similar in size to the object that exploded over Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908. The shockwave levelled hundreds of square kilometres of forest. Whether an asteroid makes impact or detonates in mid-air is down to its composition. The Tunguska explosion was thought to result from a rocky asteroid, as opposed to more metallic asteroids that have more structural integrity and stay intact up to impact.

This is the closest approach on record to Earth for an asteroid of its size.

Observations from the fly-by will hopefully gives clues on the asteroid’s composition and structure.

Any plans to watch the asteroid fly past?

Thought and Environment

Just getting back to normal at the moment after five days without power.

For those that missed it in the news, Queensland has taken quite a battering over the last week or so with heavy storms and wild weather. We live in quite an elevated position, so thankfully we were not flooded like many other people in Queensland. The city of Bundaberg, just north of Brisbane, was particularly hard hit.

Our suburb was subject to some pretty severe weather – including some pretty extreme wind gusts. One thing I really like about the area is the large blocks and the pleasant greenery. Unfortunately the trees in combination with the wind gusts led to hundreds of fallen power lines. In the region there were more than two thousand fallen lines and 300,000 households without power. Some people in our suburb are still waiting after six days.

The lack of electricity and the muddy water entering the main Southside treatment plant led to problems with mains water, with low levels in local reservoirs, but thankfully we did not lose water supply, although one adjacent suburb did.

After that many days without electricity I realised how much I had come to rely on electronic devices for distraction and entertainment! Cooking was fine. I had a good amount of camping equipment and thankfully some good books.

Now, getting back into writing involved finding a local council library that still had power (and air conditioning! The humidity after the rains stopped was pretty awesome).

The interesting thing about working in the local council library was how good it was. I found I really managed to focus on the work, despite the babbling toddlers and other punters all flocking there to check their email and take advantage of the free wi-fi. I had forgotten how well I usually work in new environments, like hotel rooms and cafes. I can switch off from the noise, so that’s not an issue.

I think what makes these environments so good for me is that they are ‘psychic blank slates’. My usual home and writing environment seems to come ‘pre-loaded’ with a whole set of feelings and thoughts that more often than not act as a barrier to getting work done and tuning into the world.

I did a motivational seminar once were the presenter said something along the lines of: ‘Each day we have around 27,000 thoughts. The only problem is that 97% of them are the same ones we had yesterday!’

I’m not sure about the numbers, but I know that getting into a completely new environment really works for me, screening out some of these ‘pre-loaded’ thoughts. Something that I had forgotten.

Do you work well in new environments?