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DARPA announces Phase 1 of its XS-1 spaceplane program


July 15, 2014

A DARPA rendering of the planned XS-1, launching its second-stage rocket

A DARPA rendering of the planned XS-1, launching its second-stage rocket

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It takes a lot more money and preparation to launch a rocket than to have a plane take off. That's why DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) first initiated its Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program. The idea is that once built, the XS-1 could take off and land like a regular aircraft, but could also deliver satellite payloads into low-Earth orbit while airborne. Today, the agency announced its plans for Phase 1 of the program, which includes awarding contracts for designs of the autonomous spaceplane.

As outlined in a previous article, plans call for the unmanned XS-1 to be able to make 10 flights within 10 days, reaching a speed of Mach 10+ at least once, and launching payloads weighing between 3,000 and 5,000 pounds (1,361 to 2,268 kg) at under US$5 million a pop.

A second-stage rocket carrying each payload will fire once it's launched from the spaceplane at suborbital altitude, carrying the satellite to its final orbit. The XS-1 will proceed back to the ground, where it will land and immediately be prepared for its next launch.

In today's announcement, DARPA stated that it will be funding three companies to independently develop designs for an XS-1 demonstration vehicle. These include The Boeing Company (working with Blue Origin), Masten Space Systems (working with XCOR Aerospace), and Northrop Grumman Corporation (working with Virgin Galactic). The designs will be assessed based on criteria such as feasibility, performance, developmental and operational costs, and the potential for use in military, civil and commercial applications.

Boeing's take on the XS-1
Boeing's take on the XS-1

Along with developing the demo vehicle designs, other goals of Phase 1 are to "Identify and conduct critical risk reduction of core component technologies and processes," and "Develop a technology maturation plan for fabrication and flight test of XS-1 system capabilities." The Phase 2 competition, planned to take place next year, will involve awarding a production order to build and demonstrate the spaceplane.

Virgin Galactic, Swiss Space Systems and Stratolaunch Systems are all working on similar concepts, in which satellites would be "flown into space."

The XS-1 concept is illustrated in the following video.

Sources: DARPA, Boeing

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth

"The designs will be assessed based on criteria such as feasibility, performance, developmental and operational costs, and the potential for use in military, civil and commercial applications."

The cost of reliable unmanned payload delivery to LEO can only come down. Happy days

15th July, 2014 @ 04:45 pm PDT

Like the bottom of this article mentioned, their is already a bunch of people going after the small satellite market...normally I like DARPA projects. But this one is a waste of tax dollars.

Derek Howe
15th July, 2014 @ 07:26 pm PDT

I prefer winged landings but I'm betting on SpaceX.

15th July, 2014 @ 07:27 pm PDT

?????? F15 B-52 Mig 25 could do this years ago

Leonard Foster Jr
15th July, 2014 @ 10:01 pm PDT

Black Horse rides again....

Bob Ehresman
16th July, 2014 @ 07:37 am PDT

I see this as being much like the Shuttle, only in reverse, The Shuttle had a flying, recoverable second stage on top of what was essentially a regular first stage---not one of von Braun's brighter moments (but then it was originally intended as a global-range bomber ;-) ).

This concept (belatedly) puts things the right way around, with the FIRST stage being the recoverable plane---a much more economical approach. (I can't shake the idea that it is still intended as a bomber.)

While an improvement, I still cannot say I am enthusiastic about this concept. A much better idea is to have _ground-based_ propulsion for the first stage---either beam the second stage up on a laser/microwave beam (as proposed by prof. Leik Myrabo), or drive it up with a railgun mass driver. Simpler and in the long run cheaper than the launch drone, especially with regard to DARPA's goal of quick launch turnaround. Both systems are already in development. Links below.



(disclaimer: I have nothing against bombers as such, or against the idea of military-usable space hardware. Si vis pacem, para bellum.)

22nd July, 2014 @ 12:48 am PDT
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