Today, space missions and satellite launches take years of planning and hundreds of millions of dollars in expenses. While we certainly benefit from these explorations, their time and cost slows progress.
To increase efficiency, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is beginning work on a reusable spacecraft that could change the way we think about space travel.
The vehicle, called the Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1), aims to make space exploration faster and more affordable, which will result in more frequent spaceflights.
DARPA has contracted three leading aircraft systems companies to design the spacecraft: The Boeing Company, Masten Space Systems and Northrop Grumman Corporation.
“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,” explained DARPA program manager Jess Sponable.
“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.”
The XS-1 will fly unmanned at hypersonic speeds to execute its main purpose, deploying satellites into orbit. After releasing the satellites, the body of the spacecraft will return to earth and be readied for its next launch.
For now, goals of the XS-1 mission are more developmental. The program will attempt to fly 10 times in 10 days, reach hypersonic speeds and deploy a small payload into orbit, all while drastically reducing the cost.
To achieve these goals, DARPA will evaluate each company’s designs throughout the process, performing risk assessments and analysing how the technology can be pushed further.
The companies are also expected to have alternative approaches for both technical aspects and affordability. These high expectations mean that the development of the XS-1 will not be easy, but its systems should be sound.
A final part of the development process is determining how the reusable spacecraft design can be used for military, civilian and commercial purposes.
Indeed, the prospect of this inexpensive vehicle stirs futuristic visions of space tourists exploring the galaxy recreationally, with space travel becoming as accessible as flying in an airplane.
While this use of DARPA’s reusable spacecraft is a ways off, more practical applications are within reach. The XS-1 will increase the number of missions that launch each year with its quick turnaround rate.
Subsequently, the amount of data collected by those missions will increase, giving us a more comprehensive, detailed understanding of space.
Images and video courtesy of DARPA.