US: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded contracts to three company teams to begin developing prototypes of a reusable satellite launch vehicle that could make putting satellites into orbit easier, more routine and—critically—less expensive. The XS-1 programme aims to develop a modular, unmanned hypersonic plane that could fly to suborbital altitudes, use an expendable module to deploy a satellite into Low-Earth Orbit and then return. The agency has released a concept video for the programme. The teams awarded contracts for Phase 1 of the program are Boeing, working with Blue Origin; Masten Space Systems, working with XCOR Aerospace; and Northrop Grumman, working with Virgin Galactic, according to a press release by DARPA.
Phase 1 is intended to assess the feasibility of the XS-1, as the teams develop a demonstration model, identify core technologies and risk-reduction plans, and come up with a schedule for developing and, eventually, flight-testing the XS-1.
According to DARPA, the military uses a lot of satellites, but some launches have to be planned years ahead of time and can cost hundreds of millions of dollars when accounting for all the infrastructure and personnel required. Even small payloads can involve months of planning and significant costs. The Pentagon wants greater flexibility in launching small satellites for surveillance and other tasks and hopes to be able to do it for less money. The XS-1 would be one way to achieve that. The programme’s goals include developing a plane that could fly up to 10 times in 10 days, be capable of speeds in excess of Mach 10, and deliver a 3,000-to-5,000-pound payload for less than USD 5 million a flight. In DARPA’s vision, the XS-1 would be a reusable unmanned vehicle with expendable upper stages that could be attached as needed. Once it reaches a suborbital altitude, the expendable upper stage (or more than one, if necessary) would detach and deploy a satellite. The XS-1 would then return to Earth to be readied for its next flight.