The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has recently revealed its proposals for building a futuristic satellite-launching robotic space plane. The aim of the Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) project is to construct a reusable plane, which at its best performance, would be able to make 10 flights in 10 days, launch a payload into low Earth orbit whose weight will be capable of being adjusted, and cost no more than $5 million per flight.
According to the DARPA officials, XS-1 will be used mainly as a reasonable and fast medium for reaching satellites to space. The organization is already working with three groups for the space plane’s design that have been given a deadline of July 22 to submit their design proposals.
“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 stated on its website. The XS-1 program will overcome the aforementioned challenges, according to officials from the organization, to create a new model for developing space operations that are affordable, responsive and comparatively faster as far as reaching the capabilities to space is concerned. According to DARPA, such measures are of utmost necessity for national and economic security, apart from finding out efficient and affordable methods. The XS-1 program started in 2013 with the initial aim of launching the first test flight in 2018, however it has now being speculated that the first takeoff can only happen sometime in 2019 or 2020.
The Boeing Company (working with Blue Origin, LLC); Masten Space Systems (working with XCOR Aerospace); and Northrop Grumman Corporation (working with Virgin Galactic). Phases 2 and 3 will be competed as a full and open Program Solicitation mandating an Other Transaction Authority (OTA) agreement with the expectation of a single resulting award. Cost share is expected.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin has been the company at the forefront of this sort of launch so far. The Amazon and Washington Post owner has already demonstrated that his space company’s crafts are capable of launching and landing the same craft three times in a row. While these launches are lower in altitude than similar events from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, it seems DARPA is only looking to launch satellites, not deliver payloads to the International Space Station. For those purposes, Blue Origin seems like the player to beat here, especially when assisted by the folks at Boeing.
Virgin Galactic hasn’t proven itself a major player in the commercial space flight game yet, but maybe Richard Branson can take this opportunity to prove himself in a major way. Veterans from the company recently started a new company called Vector Space Systems, which aims to do many of the same things.
The third partnership is by far the least well known, but could be a formidable underdog. Masten Space Systems focuses on entry, descent, and landing technologies (EDL) while XCOR Aerospace is developing some pretty cool looking reusable rockets. Maybe these two specialties combined can win out to beat the big dogs.
SOURCES- DARPA, Science World Report, Inverse