In mid-July the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded contracts to Boeing, Masten Space Systems, and Northrop Grumman to develop an unmanned spaceplane to travel hypersonic speeds in the upper atmosphere—as easily as a commercial airliner.
This week we got to see what Northrop Grumman's vision of such a spacecraft would look like. Working with Scaled Composites, an aerospace company owned by Northrop Grumman, and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, the XS-1 (which means experimental spaceplane) must travel Mach 10 or higher, travel 10 times in 10 days, and carry 3,000 to 5,000-pound payloads for less than $5 million as per DARPA's rules.
A press release details that the XS-1 will have a reusable booster that Grumman stresses is "affordable" with "aircraft-like" operations. This first stage looks to be at the heart of the design as the team says the booster enables "new generations of lower cost, innovative, and more resilient spacecraft." The upper stages of the aircraft will help deploy satellites and other possible payloads into orbit.
"We plan to bundle proven technologies into our concept that we developed during related projects for DARPA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory," said Doug Young, a vp with Northrop Grumman, in an official statement. So it seems Grumman will be pulling from its portfolio of projects to meet DARPA's lofty goals.
Landings and takeoffs will also need to be as efficient (if not more) than the spaceplane's fuel-guzzling appetite. Grumman says it'll use a transporter erector launcher(!), minimal ground crew and autonomous in-flight systems. On its return trip, the XS-1 will land horizontally, just like your everyday 747. Branson's Virgin Galactic will offer a majority of its expertise helping with XS-1's commercial operations. Boeing is also getting a little commercial spaceflight help from Jeff Bezos' company Blue Origins. We won't get to see the products of these companies' combined efforts until DARPA holds its phase 2 competition sometime in 2015. And a few years after that we'll see the first spaceplane mission launch. [Northrop Grumman via Space.com]
Image by Northrop Grumman