DARPA taps Boeing for unmanned reusable spaceplane

Boeing comes out as the winner of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program to build an unmanned reusable spaceplane to carry satellites into orbit.

(DARPA concept video of the XS-1 spaceplane)

Boeing has emerged as the winner 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.

DARPA envisions the XS-1 Experimental Spaceplane as a class of hypersonic aircraft that could launch into low-Earth orbit within days versus the months or years currently required to launch a single satellite. Boeing will build the future Phantom Express spaceplane to carry satellites up to 3,000 pounds and return back to Earth on a runway similar to that of business jets.

Contract figures were not disclosed for phases two and three of XS-1 Boeing was selected for. Boeing and Northrop Grumman each received $6.5 million for phase one in August 2015 and a third company Masten Space Systems got $3 million.

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. DARPA will also release some test flight data from phases two and three in an effort to spur adoption of the XS-1 program's processes and technologies across the commercial launch sector.

The unmanned arena figures to be key for Boeing's defense business going forward as its current main fighter jet production programs face an uncertain future after the 2020s. Boeing chief Leanne Caret started that role in March of last year and has highlighted unmanned as two of her six main priorities for the airplane maker's nearly $30 billion segment.

Caret told Reuters in July 2016 Boeing's interest in autonomous vehicles includes both the space and undersea domains. Boeing acquired undersea drone maker Liquid Robotics five months later.

Phase two covers design, construction and testing of a demonstration vehicle through 2019. DARPA and Boeing will initially fire the spaceplane's engine on the ground 10 times in 10 days in an effort to show propulsion readiness for full flight tests.

For phase three, the Boeing-DARPA team will conduct 12-15 flight tests in 2020 with the goal to fly the spaceplane 10 times over 10 straight days. Initial flights will be without payloads but eventually aim to deliver a demonstration payload at 900-3,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit.

Phantom Express would be powered by an Aerojet Rocketdyne AR-22 engine, a derivative of the engine used on the Space Shuttle. Aerojet designed the engine to be reusable and use both liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen fuel.