DARPA initiates reusable, aircraft-like spaceship development

DARPA picks Boeing, Masten and Northrop to begin developing Mach-10 satellite taxi


Looking to build a hypersonic transport would be the heart of less expensive satellite launch system, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) said it awarded three contracts to being work on the spacecraft.

DARPA said Boeing (working with Blue Origin) Masten Space Systems (working with XCOR Aerospace) and Northrop Grumman Corporation (working with Virgin Galactic) would begin phase 1 work on the agency’s Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program that aims to design, build, and demonstrate a reusable Mach 10 aircraft capable of carrying and deploying an upper stage that can place 3,000- 5,000 lb. satellite into low earth orbit (LEO) at a target cost of less than $5M per launch.

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DARPA envisions XS-1 would have a reusable first stage that would fly to hypersonic speeds at a suborbital altitude. At that point, one or more expendable upper stages would separate and deploy a satellite LEO. The reusable first stage would then return to earth, land and be prepared for the next flight. Modular components, durable thermal protection systems and automatic launch, flight and recovery systems should significantly reduce logistical needs, enabling rapid turnaround between flights.

Key XS-1 technical goals include flying 10 times in 10 days, flying to Mach 10+ at least once and launching a representative small payload to orbit. The program also seeks to reduce the cost of access to space for 3,000- to 5,000-pound payloads to less than $5 million per flight, according to DARPA.

In Phase 1 of XS-1, DARPA said it intends to evaluate the technical feasibility and methods for achieving the program’s goals. Tasks currently include:

  1. Develop the XS-1 demonstration vehicle
  2. Identify and conduct critical risk reduction of core component technologies and processes
  3. Develop a technology maturation plan for fabrication and flight test of XS-1 system capabilities

DARPA expects the companies to explore alternative technical approaches from the perspectives of feasibility, performance, system design and development cost and operational cost. They must also assess potential suitability for near-term opportunities to military, civil and commercial users. These opportunities include both launching small payloads per the program goals as well as others, such as supporting future hypersonic testing and a future space access aircraft, DARPA stated.

Commercial, civilian and military satellites provide crucial real-time information essential to providing strategic national security advantages to the United States. The current generation of satellite launch vehicles, however, is expensive to operate, often costing hundreds of millions of dollars per flight. U.S. launch vehicles fly only a few times each year and normally require scheduling years in advance, making it extremely difficult to deploy satellites without lengthy pre-planning. Quick, affordable and routine access to space is increasingly critical for U.S. Defense Department operations. In the end the idea is to lower satellite launch costs by developing a reusable hypersonic unmanned vehicle with costs, operation and reliability similar to traditional aircraft. DARPA stated.

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Artist conception DARPA XS-1


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