Boeing, DARPA to Design, Build, Test New Experimental Spaceplane

Aerojet Rocketdyne is a member of the Boeing team that recently announced an agreement to collaborate with DARPA to design, build and test a technology demonstrator for the agency's XS-1 program.

Boeing has emerged as the victor of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency competition to design and test an unmanned reusable spaceplane DARPA hopes can cut the time and costs of getting satellites into orbit. The program aims to achieve a capability well out of reach today-launches to low Earth orbit in days, as compared to the months or years of preparation now needed to get a single satellite on orbit.

Once Phantom Express reaches the edge of space, the aircraft would deploy its second stage and return to Earth by landing on a runway.

Boeing and DARPA are planning to carry out a demonstration of 10 flights over 10 days during the test phase of the program. DARPA canceled the ALASA, which used Boeing's F-15, due to safety concerns stemming from rocket fuel explosions.

The XS-1 program envisions a fully reusable unmanned vehicle, roughly the size of a business jet, which would take off vertically like a rocket and fly to hypersonic speeds. After that, a dozen flight tests are scheduled for 2020.

Upon reaching a high suborbital altitude, the spaceplane would release an expendable upper stage that is able to deploy a 3,000-pound (1,360-kilogram) satellite to polar orbit.

For the XS-1 program, Aerojet Rocketdyne is providing two engines with legacy shuttle flight experience to demonstrate reusability, a wide operating range and rapid turnarounds.

Through XS-1, the agency aims to facilitate a commercial service with recurring costs of $5 million or less per launch at an assumption of 10 flights per year. Subsequent flights are planned to fly as fast as Mach 10, and deliver a demonstration payload between 900 pounds and 3,000 pounds into low Earth orbit.

DARPA says that in addition to the Phantom Express helping meet military needs, it hopes it will attract interest in the XS-1 technology from private firms.

The project, known as XS-1, is expected to debut in 2020.

"Phantom Express is designed to disrupt and transform the satellite launch process as we know it today, creating a new, on-demand space-launch capability that can be achieved more affordably and with less risk", Darryl Davis, president of Boeing Phantom Works, said today in a statement. Toward that goal, DARPA intends to release selected data from its Phase 2/3 tests and will provide to all interested commercial entities the relevant specs for potential payloads.

  • Zachary Reyes