Unmanned Systems

Unmanned plane for launching satellites goes to Phase 2

The Pentagon’s dream of cheap satellite launches using a reusable hypersonic aircraft that would get satellite payloads into the neighborhood of space before launching them is getting a little closer to reality.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Experimental Spaceplane, or XS-1, program is heading into Phase 2 of the development of an unmanned aircraft that could, researchers hope, fly up to 10 times in 10 days, delivering relatively small payloads into Low Earth Orbit.

 With XS-1, the agency is hoping to significantly cut the costs of launching these types of satellites, a process that currently involves a lot of ground infrastructure, advance planning, large booster rockets and which can costs hundreds of millions of dollars. DARPA said one of its goals for the program is to get the costs for launches down to about $5 million each.

The program’s plan calls for the XS-1 to reach suborbital altitudes at speeds fast enough to allow the use of a relatively small, inexpensive upper stage, DARPA said in a release. After launch, the XS-1 would return to be prepared for the next day’s mission. Researchers said the program would start with representative payloads of 900 to 1,500 pounds, with the goal of eventually getting to 3,000-plus pounds. The program would serve both military and commercial satellite users.

“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,” Jess Sponable, DARPA program manager, said in the release. “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.”

In Phase 1 of the program, DARPA awarded contracts to three teams to evaluate technical feasibility and development methods: Boeing working with Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems working with XCOR Aerospace, and Northrop Grumman working with Virgin Galactic. Phases 2 and 3 will operate under Other Transaction Authority agreements, a tool that exists outside the usual government procurement regulations and is designed to speed up development of new, innovative technologies.

The agency has set a Proposers’ Day for April, 29 in Arlington, Va., and plans to issue a Program Solicitation on the FedBizOps website.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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