US defence research agency DARPA has chosen prime contractors for phase one of its Experimental Spaceplane project, aiming to develop an aircraft-like launcher for small satellites.
As part of the first phase of the XS-1 project, Boeing, Masten and Northrop Grumman have been tasked with conducting a risk assessment of core component technologies and processes, developing a technology maturation plan and building a demonstration vehicle.
“We chose performers who could prudently integrate existing and up-and-coming technologies and operations, while making XS-1 as reliable, easy-to-use and cost-effective as possible,” said Jess Sponable, DARPA programme manager. “We’re eager to see how their initial designs envision making spaceflight commonplace —with all the potential military, civilian and commercial benefits that capability would provide.”
Both aerospace and defence giants Boeing and Northrop Grumman have already tried their hands at building sub orbital launch vehicles. Boeing has been working with with Blue Origin, a private aerospace company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezzos, on the New Shepard Suborbital System. Northrop Grumman is a collaborator of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
The third of the selected contractors, Masten, is a California-based start-up, currently developing a vertical take-off, vertical landing launcher for unmanned suborbital research flights.
DARPA hopes its innovative space plane could help bring some fresh air into the current satellite launch market, which requires scheduling years in advance and comes with extremely high cost.
Unlike currently used rockets, only used for a single launch each time, DARPA’s space plane would be fully reusable, only relying on expandable upper stages.
The concept envisions a reusable first stage, flying at hypersonic speeds, would reach suborbital altitude where one or more expendable upper stages would separate and deploy a satellite into Low Earth Orbit.
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.
The ambitious programme would like to see the plane flying up to ten times in ten days.