The Pentagon’s research and development shop is moving one step closer toward building a hypersonic space plane that could shuttle satellites or people into space in record time.
In an announcement on Wednesday, DARPA said that Boeing, which was selected for phase one of the project, would keep working on its advanced design for the Experimental Space plane (XS-1) program with additional funding for phases two and three.
While Phase One of XS-1 was more of a drawing board/concept phase, phases two and three are all about actually building a space plane and conducting flight tests, demonstrations, and hopefully, delivery of a satellite into orbit.
Here’s how DARPA describes what it hopes XS-1 may one day pull off:
The XS-1 program envisions a fully reusable unmanned vehicle, roughly the size of a business jet, which would take off vertically like a rocket and fly to hypersonic speeds. The vehicle would be launched with no external boosters, powered solely by self-contained cryogenic propellants. Upon reaching a high suborbital altitude, the booster would release an expendable upper stage able to deploy a 3,000-pound satellite to polar orbit. The reusable first stage would then bank and return to Earth, landing horizontally like an aircraft, and be prepared for the next flight, potentially within hours.
Since it’s DARPA, the project is focused on national security, and there’s no doubt the Pentagon could save plenty of money and time by launching satellites via a low-cost space plane. But the agency also notes in its announcement that another goal is to “encourage the broader commercial launch sector,” and it will release testing data out to companies who are interested during phases two and three.
So it looks like the military won’t be the only ones having fun flying planes into space, Mr. Skywalker.
DARPA has been behind a number of huge technological advances that have made their way to the private sector, like the Internet, a ton of the components of modern-day computing, and GPS, just to name a few.
“We’re delighted to see this truly futuristic capability coming closer to reality,” said Brad Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office (TTO), which oversees XS-1. “Demonstration of aircraft-like, on-demand, and routine access to space is important for meeting critical Defense Department needs and could help open the door to a range of next-generation commercial opportunities.”