The Military’s New Space Plane Could Be a Spy

XS-1 to conduct first flight test by 2018

The Military’s New Space Plane Could Be a Spy The Military’s New Space Plane Could Be a Spy

Uncategorized November 18, 2013 0

Xs-1 concept. darpa illustration The Military’s New Space Plane Could Be a Spy XS-1 to conduct first flight test by 2018 The future of... The Military’s New Space Plane Could Be a Spy
Xs-1 concept. darpa illustration

The Military’s New Space Plane Could Be a Spy

XS-1 to conduct first flight test by 2018

The future of spaceflight includes lots of little shuttles—and the military wants to use them for spying.

Tomorrow’s space-traveling shuttles will also launch from earth without the humans aboard. In September, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced a plan to develop a reusable unmanned vehicle with “aircraft-like access to space.”

Called the XS-1, the DARPA program envisions the plane to travel to suborbital altitudes at hypersonic speeds before launching small satellites between 3,000 to 5,000 pounds into orbit.

After dispensing its payload—envisioned as a disposable final stage that splits apart into multiple satellites—the space plane will glide back down to earth, like a plane.

A conference with potential developers followed in October. Then in November, DARPA released its first request for proposal related to the project’s design phase—with more hints about what XS-1 will do once it starts flying.

First of all, the XS-1 is intended as a prototype vessel for technologies to be used in “future hypersonic aircraft and space access vehicles,” according to DARPA. This means carrying out both surveillance missions and what the agency terms “routine global reach intelligence.”

In other words, XS-1 is a test bed for a spacefaring spy plane—albeit not an orbiting one.

If all goes according to plan, the XS-1 should conduct its first test flight by 2018 and DARPA hopes for the plane to conduct at least 10 flights in as many days. The XS-1's total design cost? Around $154 million. It’s also not intended as a strictly military test vehicle—commercial suborbital flight companies stand to benefit from technology tested aboard the bird as well.

But the main reason for a space plane is cost. At $5 million per launch, the XS-1 one would be far cheaper to launch than the $50 million-per-launch Minotaur 4 rocket the military currently uses to carry its satellites into space. A space plane just has to be inspected after it lands—then it’s ready to take off again on short notice.

It’s ambitious, though the military has experience with small, unmanned space planes. NASA experimented with the X-33 and X-34 space planes. The former never left the assembly stage and the latter was canceled in 2001. More recently, the Air Force has carried out three long-duration orbital experiments—including a current orbit launched last December—with the unmanned X-37.

However, the Air Force has been highly secretive about what the X-37 is really doing up there. There’s also an important difference between the Air Force’s X-37 and what DARPA is proposing.

The X-37 stays in orbit doing … good question. The XS-1 just needs to travel high enough to launch whatever it’s carrying on board.

Update 11/20: We emailed Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation—and a former Air Force officer with U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center—about some of the technical hurdles involved with XS-1. He wrote back:

One is surviving the intense heat generated by hypersonic flight. Another is having engines that can work efficiently across a range of altitudes. Typically an engine that works well in the lower altitude, oxygen-rich part of the atmosphere doesn't work very well in the high-altitude oxygen-poor part of the atmosphere. Then there’s the DARPA goal of having the turnaround time measured in hours/days. There’s also the requirement to have it all happen from a “clean pad” without any specialized infrastructure. Usually space launch vehicles have dedicated launch pads and support facilities with lots of specialized equipment.

Another challenge is re-usability:

Most launch vehicles in use today are disposable—single use only. If you have a reusabe launch vehicle, that would theoretically save on costs since you wouldn’t need to build a new one for each launch. The now retired space shuttle was one of the few to be “reusable” although that came only after several hundred million dollars of new parts or refurbishments and several months of labor.