Boeing and DARPA to Partner on Spaceplane

DARPA selects Boeing to complete its ambitious plan for a reusable spaceplane.

Artist's concept of the XS-1. (Image courtesy of DARPA.)

Artist’s concept of the XS-1. (Image courtesy of DARPA.)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced the U.S. aerospace giant Boeing will complete the advanced design work for the Agency’s Experimental Spaceplane, the XS-1.

According to DARPA, the XS-1 project aims to create an aerospace platform that’s capable of providing hypersonic, airplane-like access to space to bolster U.S. national security. Should the advanced research agency get all that it wants from the XS-1 platform, the craft would be capable of launching on short notice, cost little to get into low-Earth orbit and presumably be capable of re-entering the atmosphere to deliver munitions.

“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.

DARPA’s engineers imagine that a successful XS-1 model will be similar in size to a business jet and have vertical launch capabilities. The spaceplane will also eschew any external boosters for launch and rely solely on cryogenic fuel (like Liquid Natural Gas) to thrust itself off the planet at hypersonic speeds.

Once in low-Earth orbit the XS-1’s engine would “release an expendable upper stage able to deploy a 3,000-pound satellite to polar orbit.” After completing this flight phase the craft would then return to Earth (presumably under autonomous control) and touch down just as it was launched, readying itself for another voyage within hours.

DARPA plans to validate Boeing’s design by launching the XS-1 10 times in 10 days to prove its reusability. If that goal could be achieved, DARPA sees the operational cost of a XS-1 launch entering into the realm of commercial viability. At a projected $5M per take-off, the XS-1 could provide a number of opportunities for advanced space exploration, colonization and industrialization.

Other possible missions for the XS-1 could encompass the quick return of satellite communications if a critical piece of infrastructure was compromised or the delivery of humanitarian payloads within hours of a disaster occurring. Supply lines could also be bolstered by the XS-1, particularly if it could reach any part of the planet within hours of launch.

For more advanced aerospace news, check out Space X to Launch Secret Air Force Space Plane.