America is getting back in the space plane business after it recently emerged that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program has completed the first stage of its design competition and is proceeding to stage two.
The agency awarded $20 million to three aerospace firms to continue development of the cutting edge spacecraft.
Boeing, Masten Space Science Systems, and Northrop Grumman will each continue development of their designs which are expected to be completed by August 2016. Following DARPA’s choice for a prototype, a first flight is expected as early as 2018.
The designs under consideration for the program are quite similar in appearance to the Boeing X-37, a top secret reusable unmanned spacecraft that is already operational, having completed its fourth mission in May 2015.
Yet the similarities are mostly cosmetic, with the X-37 operating as an orbital vehicle that travels from the launchpad into orbit with one rocket, and the XS-1 functioning as just one stage in the transportation of the payload into space.
The X-37 is widely believed to be a ‘hunter killer’ spacecraft, capable of radical orbit changes that allow it to destroy or capture orbiting satellites.
The XS-1’s propulsion system is expected to be a hypersonic engine capable of speeds up to Mach 10, and upon reaching that speed it will then deploy an expendable rocket to carry the payload into orbit.
Other requirements of the DARPA design competition are that the spaceplane be capable of operating 10 times in 10 days at less than $5 million per flight, and the ability to launch a payload of between 3,000 and 5,000 pounds.
These design goals for flight frequency and cost are many orders of magnitude better than what existing systems are capable of achieving.
The purposes of such a vastly improved space delivery system could include strengthening U.S. capability for a potential space war.
The disabling of satellites could dramatically impact a nation’s capability for surveillance and communications, both critical capabilities.
The U.S. maintains a position of defense regarding the possibility of a space conflict, as Commander of Air Force Space Command General John Hyten stated, “We have a responsibility to defend against all threats. That’s what our job is… There is no doubt we have seen threats appear in the last decade, and we have prepared to respond to those threats.”
The potential debris from a conflict waged in orbit could cripple future space exploration as Earth becomes surrounded by the remains of destroyed satellites. In 2007, China tested one of its anti-satellite missiles in order to eliminate one of its unusable satellites, resulting in 3,000 new pieces of debris that now orbit the Earth.