DARPA Wants a Spacejet That Makes Drones Look Like Paper PlanesS

Putting satellites into orbit is no easy task, especially with the demise of the Space Shuttle program. Which is why DARPA's going to make itself a spacejet.

Current satellite launch methods require massive, multi-month lead times prior to take-off and are astronomically expensive to undertake—we're talking hundreds of millions of dollars per flight. A spacejet, though? That's a whole other story.

“We want to build off of proven technologies to create a reliable, cost-effective space delivery system with one-day turnaround,” said Jess Sponable, DARPA program manager heading XS-1, the foundling program, in a press release. “How it’s configured, how it gets up and how it gets back are pretty much all on the table—we’re looking for the most creative yet practical solutions possible.” To that end, DARPA is holding an open forum on Monday, October 7 wherein prospective designers can pitch their ideas on what the vehicle could look like and how it might function.

Specifically, DARPA is looking for the following metrics:

Key XS-1 technical goals include flying 10 times in 10 days, achieving speeds of Mach 10+ at least once and launching a representative payload to orbit. The program also seeks to reduce the cost of access to space for small (3,000- to 5,000-pound) payloads by at least a factor of 10, to less than $5 million per flight.

That's not to say that the XS-1 program is starting from a completely blank slate. The program's engineers have already envisioned one potential iteration as a two-piece design: A first-stage motor would accelerate the vehicle to hypersonic speeds and suborbital heights, whereupon the second stage would detach from the first and fire the package into an accurate orbit around the planet. The first stage would then be brought back to land, be refueled and reloaded for an immediate relaunch. And yes, the entire takeoff, flight, and landing will be completely autonomous—now do you see why DARPA spent all that effort developing the X-47B?

The XS-1 program is years, probably decades away from fielding a working prototype system. And there are plenty of DARPA pipe dreams that have never come to pass. But given the breakneck pace of UAV development these days, cheap and easy access orbtial access might be upon us sooner than we think. [DARPA]