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New Spaceplane May Launch Satellites Daily

DARPA, the Unites States Advanced Research Projects Agency, has just completed the first phase of its XS-1, Experimental Spaceplane-1 project. The new shuttle-drone-like plane will make satellite launches routine, faster, timesaving and more cost-effective.

Currently, it takes years to plan and schedule a satellite launch. The personnel and infrastructure needed costs millions of dollars per launch. With a backlog of military and private sector satellites, it is paramount to create a better process. The emerging commercial small-satellite market alone is projected to require hundreds of launches annually.

Artist's Concept of an XS-1 Spaceplane

Artist’s Concept of an XS-1 Spaceplane

The XS-1 program began in November of 2014 with the goal of developing a reusable launch system capable of flying 10 times in 10 days with aircraft-like operations at a cost of no more than $5 million per flight. This phase included studying the viability of such a project.

Over the past two years, DARPA has partnered on the project with: Boeing which partnered with Blue Origin; Masten Space Systems, which partnered with XCOR Aerospace; and Northrop Grumman, who partnered with Virgin Galactic.

DARPA program manager Jess Sponable says,

During Phase 1 of the XS-1 program, the space industry has evolved rapidly and we intend to take advantage of multiple impressive technological and commercial advances. 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 architecture, and prove that routine and responsive access to space can be achieved at costs an order of magnitude lower than with today’s systems.

On April 29, the second phase of this project, to design and fabricate an experimental unmanned spaceplane and be prepared for test flights in 2019-2020, will begin with a “Proposer’s Day” in Arlington, Virginia. DARPA will be accepting proposals from firms to bid on the next phase of this project with the goal of selecting a partner in early 2017. Because the government no long fully funds such ambitious projects, bidders must fund part of this public-private partnership venture. The project has just received $146 million from the current (Obama) administration toward this next phase.

DARPA writes,

DARPA expects the performers to explore alternative technical approaches from the perspective of feasibility, performance, system design and development cost and operational cost. They must also assess potential suitability for near-term transition opportunities in military, civil and commercial users.

Rendering of a Concept Northrop Grumman Spaceplane

Rendering of a Concept Northrop Grumman Spaceplane

The goal is to create a fully reusable, first stage, unmanned booster vehicle that would fly at Mach 10 (10-times the speed of sound) at a suborbital altitude. Once at that altitude, the expendable one or more upper stages would separate, boost and deploy a satellite to low Earth orbit. The reusable booster would return to Earth, land and prepare for the next flight. The craft would have to be able to launch a 900-1,500-pound payload and eventually be able to launch a future 3,000-plus pound payload.

DARPA adds,

Modular components, durable thermal protection systems and automatic launch, flight and recovery systems should significantly reduce logical needs, enabling rapid turnaround between flights.

The concept is not new, as this low cost, airplane-like alternative has been explored since the 1960’s. However, because of lofty goals and inadequate technology, it was met with failure. This time, technology is on its side and the XS-1 is closer to reality.