The Pentagon Seeks a Mysterious New Space Plane

XS-1 could afford cheap space flights all the time

The Pentagon Seeks a Mysterious New Space Plane The Pentagon Seeks a Mysterious New Space Plane

Uncategorized September 18, 2013 0

XS-1 concept. Darpa illustration The Pentagon Seeks a Mysterious New Space Plane XS-1 could afford cheap space flights all the time The Space Shuttle... The Pentagon Seeks a Mysterious New Space Plane
XS-1 concept. Darpa illustration

The Pentagon Seeks a Mysterious New Space Plane

XS-1 could afford cheap space flights all the time

The Space Shuttle is now a museum piece, but the Pentagon’s blue-sky research scientists are not giving up on the idea of a reusable “space plane.” It wants a cheaper one without the human astronauts on board.

Enter the XS-1.

Short for “Experimental Spaceplane,” the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced on Sept. 17 that it’s planning to develop the bird as “a fully reusable unmanned vehicle that would provide aircraft-like access to space,” noted a DARPA press release. The idea, which is to be sketched out with more details at a “proposer’s day” workshop on Oct. 7, is to have the space planes jet to and from the planet at hypersonic speeds.

Once the XS-1 reaches suborbital altitude, it should then fling lightweight satellites into orbit. The entire machine should be able to carry about 3,000 to 5,000 pounds, and will likely launch vertically with a rocket engine before gliding back down to Earth, like a plane. The other idea is to automate as much of XS-1's launch, flight and recovery as possible to reduce costs.

DARPA keeps its potential missions fairly open-ended. But the emphasis is on speed and turning the robot over quickly for more missions. “Quick, affordable and routine access to space is increasingly critical for U.S. Defense Department operations,” the agency noted.

X-37. Air Force photo

Unmanned shuttles

Even since the iconic Shuttle flown off into retirement in 2011, the U.S. space program has been in a fix. To swap out the crews aboard the International Space Station, as well as deploying a number of satellites, NASA has rented space aboard heavy Russian Soyuz rockets launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

This isn’t a bad thing: civilian space programs rely on a great deal of international cooperation, and it’s better because of it. Still, the U.S. — let alone the Pentagon — doesn’t want to totally rely the Russians for its space launches.

There’s been several programs developed in response to this less-than-ideal situation. For NASA’s part, there’s a push to create a new heavy rocket to send astronauts into orbit, plus a new passenger module for keeping the astronauts alive. NASA experimented with reusable planes like the X-33 and X-34 in the 1990s, but ended up canceling the program. But now, the private space industry is booming; Virgin Galactic has its SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo.

Then there’s the Air Force with the X-37 — a mysterious robotic space plane the Air Force claims is used as an experimental and reusable test-bed. The X-37's second flight lasted for 469 days. It’s third and most recent test flight began in Dec. 2012. It’s still up there.

Graham Warwick at Ares, Aviation Week’s defense technology blog, wrote that the X-S1 could be used with DARPA’s “Airbone Launch Assist Space Access” (ALASA) program. The idea behind ASALA would be to take a commercial plane and upgrade it to launch small satellites into orbit at ultra-cheap prices — relative to other satellite launches.

A related program called SeeMee has also been funded by DARPA to research small military surveillance satellites that can stay in orbit for three or four months before disintegrating in the atmosphere. This is the future of space flight: smaller, cheaper and ever more numerous.