DARPA has taken a major step towards the creation of a new class of hypersonic aircraft that would offer low-cost, short-notice space launches, with the selection of The Boeing Company as its design partner.
Having already developed initial designs for the next-generation spaceplane, known as Experimental Spaceplane or XS-1, Boeing will now be tasked with completing detailed working designs, fabricating the craft and performing flight tests. The vehicle will be constructed and tested by 2019, before embarking on between 12 and 15 test flights in 2020.
Once completed, the plane will represent a major step forward in accessing space, allowing launches to be enacted within a matter of days, rather than the current timescale of months or years, and at a cost far lower than is currently the case.
“The XS-1 would be neither a traditional airplane nor a conventional launch vehicle but rather a combination of the two, with the goal of lowering launch costs by a factor of ten and replacing today’s frustratingly long wait time with launch on demand,” said Jess Sponable, DARPA program manager.
Designed to be completely re-useable, the unmanned XS-1 is around the same size as a business jet, and would take off vertically like a traditional rocket.
However, unlike a traditional rocket, it would require no external boosters to launch, instead being powered entirely by self-contained cryogenic propellants. Once the XS-1 arrived in subortbit, a booster would release a one-use upper stage to deploy the payload: a satellite, before the craft itself returned to Earth, landing horizontally like an aircraft.
Upon landing, the craft would be prepped for the next launch, and would be available to blast off again within a matter of hours. It is hoped that it will cut the cost of launch to below $5m per launch with frequent flights.
“We’re delighted to see this truly futuristic capability coming closer to reality,” said Brad Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office (TTO).
“Demonstration of aircraft-like, on-demand, and routine access to space is important for meeting critical Defense Department needs and could help open the door to a range of next-generation commercial opportunities.”
Now Boeing has been selected to move forward with the spaceplane, it will face a very short timeframe in which to complete a working craft.
“We’re very pleased with Boeing’s progress on the XS-1 through Phase 1 of the program and look forward to continuing our close collaboration in this newly funded progression to Phases 2 and 3—fabrication and flight,” said Sponable.
From now until 2019, Boeing will be tasked with completing all design work and fabricating the spaceplane, before completing on-the-ground tests. These will require the aircraft to be fired 10 times in 10 days before a launch is attempted.
Once this stage is completed, Phase 3 will be launched, which will see the spacecraft complete between 12 and 15 test flights in 2020.
After these, the XS-1 will be subject to more rigorous flight tests, including 10 flights in 10 days, first without payloads, at speeds up to Mach 5. Eventually the spaceplane will be tested at Mach 10, and will deliver dummy payloads first at a fraction of and then the full weight of a satellite.