DARPA moves toward spacecraft that can fly 10X in 10-days

DARPA picked Boeing, Masten and Northrop to begin developing Mach-10 satellite taxi for Phase 1 development; Phase 2 will soon be on the clock.

DARPA this month will explain what it wants in the next development phase of its reusable Mach 10 satellite taxi capable of carrying and deploying a 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’s Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) system 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.

The research agency in 2014 awarded Boeing (working with Blue Origin) Masten Space Systems (working with XCOR Aerospace) and Northrop Grumman Corporation (working with Virgin Galactic) contracts to begin phase 1 XS-1 work and is now ready to move onto Phase 2.

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DARPA said the overall objective of the XS 1 Phase II/III program is to design, fabricate and integrate the system that will become a reusable booster rocket that will support an expendable upper stage capable of inserting 3,000 pounds to orbit, with a design goal of less than $5M cost per launch for an operational system.

The program will demonstrate on-demand and rapid operations by flying the booster ten times in ten days and launching a demonstration payload greater than 900 pounds to orbit. Based on the results of Phase I, DARPA said it expects to award Phases II and III of the XS-1 to the tune of about $140M.

“In order to complete detailed design, fabrication, and flight test within the planned schedule and budget, proposals for Phases II and III must contain designs of sufficient engineering maturity and fidelity. This includes the incorporation of propulsion systems which will be ready for flight no later than FY20,” DARPA stated.

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“We intend to leverage those advances along with our Phase 1 progress to break the cycle of escalating DoD space system launch costs, catalyze lower-cost satellite architectures, and prove that routine and responsive access to space can be achieved at costs an order of magnitude lower than with today’s systems, said Jess Sponable, DARPA program manager in a statement.

The agency will examine Phase 2 at a meeting on April 29, 2016 at the DARPA Conference Center, in Arlington, VA.

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