DARPA announces Phase 2 of spaceplane project
DARPA has announced the second phase of its ambitious XS-1 program. The agency is seeking to make access to space more regular and affordable by employing an entirely re-usable high-speed, sub-orbital automated spaceplane as the first stage of its launch vehicle.
Upon reaching a designated height, an expendable upper stage would separate from the space plane, and insert a payload into low-Earth orbit (LEO). The spaceplane would then autonomously land and be serviced for the next launch.
Sick of Ads?
Join more than 500 New Atlas Plus subscribers who read our newsletter and website without ads.
It's just US$19 a year.More Information
Phase 1 of the program saw DARPA award contracts to three companies, each of which was paired with a launch service provider. The teams were tasked with analyzing the feasibility of the project, and designing their own versions of the launcher.
"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," states Jess Sponable, program manager for the XS-1. "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 architectures, and prove that routine and responsive access to space can be achieved at costs an order of magnitude lower than with today's systems."
Phase 2 will integrate state-of-the-art technologies in combination with the advances made in Phase 1 of the program to design and fabricate a functioning launcher roughly the size of a conventional business jet. Whereas multiple contracts were offered in the first stage of the program, DARPA only envisions awarding a single commitment in Phase 2.
The second stage of the initiative will have four primary technical goals.
- Fly 10 times in a 10-day period (not including weather, range and emergency delays) to demonstrate aircraft-like access to space and eliminate concerns about the cost-effectiveness and reliability of reusable launch.
- Achieve flight velocity sufficiently high to enable use of a small (and therefore low-cost) expendable upper stage.
- Launch a 900 to 1,500-lb (408 to 680-kg) representative payload to demonstrate an immediate responsive launch capability able to support both DoD and commercial missions. The same XS-1 vehicle could eventually also launch future 3,000+-lb (1,361-kg) payloads by using a larger expendable upper stage.
- Reduce the cost of access to space for 3,000+-lb payloads, with a goal of approximately $5 million per flight for the operational system, which would include a reusable booster and expendable upper stage(s).
According to DARPA the final design will make use of advanced heat-resistant materials, cryogenic tanks and modular subsystems that will combine to lower the cost and reduce downtime. Conventional rocket-based launch providers can only offer a limited number of launch slots each year, and the launches are booked years before the launch time.
Even the Ariane 6, Airbus Safron Launchers' next-generation rocket, will offer only 12 launches per year. Employing a reusable spaceplane has the potential to provide cheaper, more flexible access to LEO. Beyond finding its uses in the commercial sphere, the XS-1 project will be used to assure American military satellites can be launched more frequently.