DARPA Dreams Up Satellite-Launching Hypersonic Space Plane
February 12, 2014

DARPA Dreams Up Satellite-Launching Hypersonic Space Plane

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A new program established by DARPA is looking to build a spaceplane that is able to launch satellites into orbit.

The Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program will help add a quick, affordable and routine ride to space. The program aims to build a fully reusable unmanned hypersonic vehicle that DARPA said would be like providing “aircraft-like access to space.”

The proposed vehicle would launch from a “clean pad” with a small ground crew and no need for expensive specialized infrastructure, similar to modern airplanes. With this setup, DARPA would be able to provide routine daily operations and flights from a wide range of locations with the intent to deploy small satellites into orbit.

“We want to build off of proven technologies to create a reliable, cost-effective space delivery system with one-day turnaround,” Jess Sponable, DARPA program manager heading XS-1, said in a statement. “How it’s configured, how it gets up and how it gets back are pretty much all on the table—we’re looking for the most creative yet practical solutions possible.”

DARPA scheduled an XS-1 Proposers’ Day back in November last year, where it looked for technical proposals for how to best develop and implement the new program. Proposer’s Day was originally scheduled for October, but it had to be delayed due to the government shutdown.

The program is asking those interested in submitting a program to meet some specific capabilities, including a reusable first stage that would fly to hypersonic speeds at a suborbital altitude.

“At that point, one or more expendable upper stages would separate and deploy a satellite into Low Earth Orbit,” DARPA said when announcing the program. “The reusable hypersonic aircraft would then return to earth, land and be prepared for the next flight.”

The hypersonic vehicle should include modular components, durable thermal protection systems and automatic launch, flight and recovery systems. DARPA said these capabilities will help it maintain a rapid turnaround between flights, which ultimately would help to reduce the R&D costs.

A technical goal set by DARPA is for the vehicle to fly 10 times in 10 days while achieving speeds of Mach 10+ at least once. The agency said XS-1 will reduce the cost of access to space for small payloads to less than $5 million per flight.

“XS-1 aims to help break the cycle of launches happening farther and farther apart and costing more and more,” Sponable said. “It would also help further our progress toward practical hypersonic aircraft technologies and increase opportunities to test new satellite technologies as well.”