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US Military Is Close To Selecting Builder For XS-1 Space Plane

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The U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will soon select a company to build its robotic XS-1 space plane, according to media reports.

DARPA has entered the final stages of the selection process, in which it will ultimately choose one company to construct the space plane, Air Force Magazine reported last week.

In Phase 1 of the XS-1 program, DARPA awarded prime contracts to three companies, each of which will work with a commercial launch provider: Boeing (working with Blue Origin), Masten Space Systems (working with XCOR Aerospace) and Northrop Grumman working with Virgin Galactic.

The XS-1 space plane will consist of a reusable booster vehicle and an expendable upper stage. According to the DARPA website, the XS-1 program has four primary technical goals:

  • Fly 10 times in a 10-day period, to demonstrate efficient, aircraft-like access to space.
  • Fly fast enough to allow the use of a small (and therefore cheap) expendable upper stage.
  • Launch a 900-lb. to 1,500-lb. (408 to 680 kilograms) payload, to demonstrate a launch capability that could support both military and commercial missions. The same XS-1 vehicle could eventually also launch future payloads in excess of 3,000 lbs. (1,360 kg), by using a larger upper stage.
  • Reduce the cost of access to space to about $5 million per flight for payloads of at least 3,000 lbs.

“Structures made of advanced materials, cryogenic tanks, durable thermal protection, and modular subsystems would make possible a vehicle able to launch, fly to high speeds and then land in a condition amenable to rapid turnaround and launch with the next payload. Reusable, reliable propulsion would also be essential for a low-cost and recurring flight capability,” DARPA officials wrote on the agency’s website last year.

“After downselect, a critical design review would take place in 2018, and a series of flights could be made as early as 2020,” Air Force Magazine’s John Tirpak wrote in his story last week. “One of the program requirements is to fly 10 suborbital or orbital missions in as many days, achieving space operations with ‘aircraft-like’ frequency, DARPA said. If successful, a ‘public-private partnership’ model of operating the vehicles could be adopted, DARPA documents show.”

Space contacted Jess Sponable, program manager of XS-1 at DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, about the Air Force Magazine report and projected timelines for XS-1 milestones.

DARPA is already working with three groups on designs for XS-1. This week’s announcement sets a deadline for those groups to submit their design proposals (July 22). In early 2017, DARPA is expected to select one group to move forward with the construction of an XS-1 prototype for flight testing.

The XS-1 program has four primary technical goals, according to DARPA. The first is a plane that can do 10 flights in 10 days, and demonstrate “aircraft-like access to space.” Second, the plane must be able to deliver a payload into low Earth orbit, which means it has to be able to move very fast. It must be able to launch a payload weighing up to 1,500 lbs. and have the capability to upgrade to 3,000-lb. payloads. And, each flight of the space plane, even with its heaviest payload, can’t cost more than $5 million.

In an era of declining budgets and adversaries’ evolving capabilities, quick, affordable and routine access to space is increasingly critical for both national and economic security,” DARPA officials wrote in a statement on the agency’s website. “Current satellite launch systems, however, require scheduling years in advance for an extremely limited inventory of available slots. Moreover, launches often cost hundreds of millions of dollars each, due in large part to the massive amounts of dedicated infrastructure and large number of personnel required.”

“DARPA created its Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program to help overcome these challenges and create a new paradigm for more routine, responsive and affordable space operations, reducing the time to get capabilities to space,” officials said in the statement.

The program is currently broken into three phases. Phase I sought to “evaluate the technical feasibility and methods for achieving the program’s goals,” according to the DARPA website. In 2014 and 2015, during Phase 1, the agency awarded funds to three groups working on XS-1 designs.

The military has another reusable space plane in operation: The X-37B space plane, which hops a ride aboard a rocket and can then orbit the Earth for months at a time. Built by Boeing, the two X-37Bs have launched on a total of four missions in six years. Just what they’re doing up there is a mystery; most X-37B payloads are classified.

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