New US Military Space Plane Aims for 2017 Liftoff

The United States military is making progress toward developing a new unmanned space plane, which it aims to begin flight-testing in 2017.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) plans to award the first design contracts for the vehicle project — known as Experimental Spaceplane, or XS-1— in May or thereabouts, officials said. Current schedules call for the vessel to get off the ground for the first time in late 2017 and make an orbital test flight the following year.

DARPA has high expectations for the XS-1 program, which it hopes can eventually launch 3,000- to 5,000-lb (1,361 to 2,268 kilograms) payloads to orbit for less than $5 million per flight — and to do it at least 10 times per year.

DARPA first announced the ambitious XS-1 program last September. It’s viewed as complementary to another agency effort known as ALASA (Airborne Launch Assist Space Access), which seeks to launch 100-lb (45 kg) satellites to orbit for less than $1 million apiece using traditional airplanes outfitted with expendable upper stages.

The vehicle developed in the XS-1 program could eventually transition to the commercial market, greatly reducing launch costs for many customers around the world, Sponable said. And the space plane could have many other applications as well.

For example, the XS-1 could serve as a reconnaissance satellite or a hypersonic-vehicle testbed, he said. The space plane could also help advance research into superfast point-to-point transportation around the world.

The XS-1 program represents a return to the bold aerospace projects of decades past, when engineers from various government agencies came together to push the spaceflight envelope, Sponable said.

Full article: New US Military Space Plane Aims for 2017 Liftoff (Space.com)

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