The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is soliciting design proposals for a reusable robotic space plane that will be capable of launching 3,000-pound payloads into orbit. The Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) project aims to be an inexpensive way to quickly get satellites into orbit.
In an era of declining budgets and adversaries’ evolving capabilities, quick, affordable and routine access to space is increasingly critical for both national and economic security. 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.
Three teams are working on designs for the XS-1, with a deadline of July 22: a Northrup Grumman-Virgin Galactic group, a Boeing-Blue Origin alliance, and a Masten Space Systems-XCOR Aerospace combo. The plane should be able to fly ten times in ten days at a cost of less than $5 million per flight. It must be fast enough to deliver a payload into low Earth orbit. DARPA is expected to select a design by early next year and then begin building the plane, with first flights estimated in 2019 or 2020.