DARPA and Boeing developing experimental, hypersonic space drone

25 May 2017

The XS-1 space drone. Image: Still from ‘Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) Phase 2/3 Concept Video’. Image: DARPA/YouTube

DARPA is teaming up with Boeing to produce an experimental space drone to speed up satellite deployment.

The cost of sending payloads into orbit is rapidly decreasing, with companies such as SpaceX unveiling new rockets capable of landing after launch, to be used again.

However, the cost of sending satellites and astronauts is still considered quite high and, more importantly, time-consuming.

That is why DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and Boeing have revealed plans to develop a new craft that would, for all intents and purposes, be a ‘space plane’.

The Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) programme will look to build the first of an entirely new class of hypersonic aircraft that could – on short notice – take off, deploy satellites or other cargo, and return to a runway on Earth.

This, DARPA said, would drastically reduce the amount of time it takes to complete a mission from years or months, to just a matter of days.

The XS-1 would be a fully reusable uncrewed vehicle – similar in size to a modern business jet – and would take off vertically like a rocket, flying to hypersonic speeds using its engine powered by self-contained cryogenic propellant.

When it deploys its payload of up to 1,400kg, the craft could return to Earth and be ready for use again within a matter of hours.

Neither an aircraft nor a rocket

After the first XS-1 prototype is built, DARPA and Boeing plan to fly the craft 10 times in 10 days to see if it can manage the rigours of regular spaceflight, with its hybrid, composite-metallic wings and control surfaces capable of withstanding 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Envisioning a future using the XS-1, the pair of developers believe each of the payload deliveries would cost $5m at most, considerably less than what the US military spends on space missions today.

“The XS-1 would be neither a traditional aeroplane nor a conventional launch vehicle but, rather, a combination of the two, with the goal of lowering launch costs by a factor of 10 and replacing today’s frustratingly long wait time with launch on demand,” said Jess Sponable, DARPA programme manager.

The first technology demonstration is scheduled to take place in 2019, before a series of test flights some time in 2020.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic