Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Boeing have announced plans to build a reusable space plane at Cape Canaveral, Florida in 2020.
The XS-1 space plane is intended to launch into the Earth’s orbit at a vertical trajectory, much like a traditional rocket. Once in orbit, it will deploy its stage before returning back to Earth. According to various press releases, DARPA selected Boeing to design to the XS-1 space plane last month with a $146 million contract, beating other aerospace competitors like Northrop Grunmen and Masten Space Systems. It’s important to note, however, that this is a cost-sharing project, meaning both Boeing and DARPA will fund it.
The general idea behind the XS-1 is to simply and reduce the cost of launching payloads into orbit. Early test flights show the XS-1 is capable of carrying satellites of 3,000 pounds into low Earth orbit, which is several hundred miles above Earth.
But the real beauty of the XS-1 space plane is ability to be reused. Once the XS-1 returns to Earth, it’s refueled, repaired (if necessary), and repurposed for a new mission. This would significantly lower the cost associated with launching payloads into orbit.
NASA says that the XS-1 will be capable of launching roughly once per day. Each launch will only cost about $5 million, which is a fraction of the cost of current rocket launches.
Furthermore, the XS-1 features some pretty powerful engines. As explained by Aerojet Rocketdyne — the company behind the XS-1’s engines — it’s powered by AR-22 engines that are actually made from parts of early shuttle main engines.
“The XS-1 would be neither a traditional airplane nor a conventional launch vehicle but rather a combination of the two, with the goal of lowering launch costs by a factor of ten and replacing today’s frustratingly long wait time with launch on demand,” said Jess Sponable, DARPA program manager, in a press release. “We’re very pleased with Boeing’s progress on the XS-1 through Phase 1 of the program and look forward to continuing our close collaboration in this newly funded progression to Phases 2 and 3 — fabrication and flight.”
DARPA also said that it will release data from the XS-1 flights to launch providers interested in using a similar reusable concept for their respective project. This could, of course, open the doors to a whole new world of possibilities for space missions, allowing companies to launch payloads into orbit more quickly and efficiently.