Collage of proposed DARPA XS-1 craft.
Credit: DARPA

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) may soon award a contract for the XS-1 spaceplane.

According to Air Force Magazine, DARPA has entered the final stages of a “downselect” to choose one company to proceed into the flying phase of the spaceplane.

Three companies

In Phase 1 of XS-1, DARPA awarded prime contracts to three companies, each working in concert with a commercial launch provider: The Boeing Company (working with Blue Origin, LLC); Masten Space Systems (working with XCOR Aerospace); and Northrop Grumman Corporation (working with Virgin Galactic).

However, according to the Air Force Magazine posting, the Phase II contractor won’t necessarily be chosen from the three Phase I participants.

Aircraft-like frequency

“After downselect, a critical design review would take place in 2018 and a series of flights could be made as early as 2020. One of the program requirements is to fly 10 suborbital or orbital missions in as many days, achieving space operations with ‘aircraft-like’ frequency, DARPA said. If successful, a ‘public-private partnership’ model of operating the vehicles could be adopted, DARPA documents show,” Air Force Magazine’s John Tirpak reports.

Early DARPA artwork of the XS-1.
Credit: DARPA

Technical goals

According to the DARPA website, XS-1 has four primary technical goals:

  • Fly 10 times in a 10-day period (not including weather, range and emergency delays) to demonstrate aircraft-like access to space and eliminate concerns about the cost-effectiveness and reliability of reusable launch.
  • Achieve flight velocity sufficiently high to enable use of a small (and therefore low-cost) expendable upper stage.
  • Launch a 900- to 1,500-pound representative payload to demonstrate an immediate responsive launch capability able to support both DoD and commercial missions. The same XS-1 vehicle could eventually also launch future 3,000+- pound payloads by using a larger expendable upper stage.
  • Reduce the cost of access to space for 3,000+-pound payloads, with a goal of approximately $5 million per flight for the operational system, which would include a reusable booster and expendable upper stage(s).

    One of three firms vying for XS-1.
    Credit: Northrop Grumman

Low-cost, recurring flight capability

“Structures made of advanced materials, cryogenic tanks, durable thermal protection, and modular subsystems would make possible a vehicle able to launch, fly to high speeds and then land in a condition amenable to rapid turnaround and launch with the next payload. Reusable, reliable propulsion would also be essential for a low-cost and recurring flight capability,” adds the DARPA website.

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