Northrop Grumman, in partnership with Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, has unveiled the preliminary design it is developing as part of DARPA’s XS-1 Spaceplane project. Looking like a windowless update of a 1960s Dyna Soar orbiter, it’s the next step in producing launch systems that will dramatically reduce the costs of getting into orbit.

Key to DARPA’s brief is to develop a space-delivery system for the US military that will reduce costs by a factor of 10. DARPA also wants the XS-1 Spaceplane to be able to launch 10 times over a 10-day period, fly in a suborbital trajectory at speeds in excess of Mach 10, release a satellite launch vehicle while in flight, and reduce the cost of putting a 3,000 to 5,000 lb (1,360 to 2,267 kg) payload into orbit to US$5 million. Under DARPA contracts, Boeing, Masten Space Systems, and Northrop Grumman are working on their own versions of the spaceplane

The Northrop plan is to employ a reusable spaceplane booster that lifts off from a combination transporter/erector/launcher that needs only a minimal ground crew. In flight, the Northrop version of the XS-1 will take advantage of the company's experience in unmanned aircraft to use a highly autonomous flight system and will release an expendable upper stage, which takes the final payload into orbit while the XS-1 returns to base and lands on a standard runway like a conventional aircraft.

Northrop is working under a $3.9 million phase one contract to produce its first design and flight demonstration plan that will allow the XS-1 to not only act as a space launcher, but as a testbed for next-generation hypersonic aircraft. As part of this, the company is working with Scaled Composites of Mojave, which will be in charge of fabrication and assembly, and Virgin Galactic, which will handle commercial spaceplane operations and transition.

"Our team is uniquely qualified to meet DARPA's XS-1 operational system goals, having built and transitioned many developmental systems to operational use, including our current work on the world's only commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo," says Doug Young, vice president, missile defense and advanced missions at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. "We plan to bundle proven technologies into our concept that we developed during related projects for DARPA, NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, giving the government maximum return on those investments."