DARPA XS-1 spaceplane moves closer to flight

A concept XS-1 suborbital spaceplace. Image courtesy of Boeing.
A concept XS-1 suborbital spaceplace. Image courtesy of Boeing.

A new satellite launch vehicle developed by the US military called the XS-1 has received funding from the US government to enter the second phase of its design process.

The spacecraft itself is being developed by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and will take the form of a suborbital spaceplane which can launch small satellites into orbit at low cost.

The XS-1 is currently in the first phase of its design process and multiple companies, including Boeing, Masten Space Systems and Northrop Grumman have been working on concepts.

Primarily DARPA hopes to significantly lower the cost of small satellite launches. These satellites will be launched atop an unmanned suborbital spaceplane, via a much smaller expendable second stage.

“The XS-1 will be capable of deploying a small expendable upper stage to launch a 3,000-pound spacecraft to earth orbit at a cost of $5 mn, ten times less than today’s launch systems,” the agency explained in a statement.

Speaking earlier this month at the Space Access ’16 conference in Phoenix, Arizona, DARPA Project Manager Jess Sponable announced that Phase 2 of the project was funded and ready to begin.

“I can tell you officially now that we have been funded by the [Obama] Administration for the next phase of XS-1. […] we have $146 million,” he was quoted by Space.com to have said.

The 3 companies who have been working on Phase 1 of the XS-1 project since 2014 will now be narrowed down to just one, whose design will eventually be turned into a working prototype.

This single contractor will be selected next year, and the first flights of the prototype vehicle will reportedly begin in 2019 or 2020.

Strategic value

The US military is keen to develop a new craft which can rapidly deploy a large number of small satellites into orbit, in a radical departure from current systems which launch large satellites infrequently at high cost.

Smaller and more numerous craft could be more useful in a wartime environment where large satellites would be quickly destroyed by anti-satellite weapons.

As well, with the trend towards satellite miniaturization continuing, such a platform could reduce the US military’s reliance on larger and more expensive launchers.