The XS-1 could replace satellites lost in battle—fast and cheap.
Aerospace giant Boeing just snagged a $6.6 million contract to design a cheap, reusable spaceplane for the U.S. military. The idea: to equip America’s space forces with an airplane-like vehicle that can fly to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere and quickly boost small satellites into orbit, and then land, refuel, load up another satellite, and take off again within 24 hours.
The so-called XS-1 program—short for “eXperimental Spaceplane 1”—isn’t a space weapon. Instead, it’s a sort of defense against space weapons—specifically, the growing fleets of killer spacecraft and satellite-destroying rockets that China and Russia are deploying.
U.S. military planners fully expect that, in any future conflict between major world powers, Earth’s orbit will become a battleground as laser-armed satellites stalk each other across orbital planes and ground- and ship-launched rockets lance into space to smash enemy spacecraft.
The country that can recover fastest from the initial orbital carnage stands to dominate space, the ultimate high ground in any high-tech battle. “In an era of declining budgets and adversaries’ evolving capabilities, quick, affordable, and routine access to space is increasingly critical for both national and economic security,” DARPA stated in a press release.
That’s where the XS-1 comes in. DARPA wants the new spaceplane to be able to boost a two-ton satellite into space every day for 10 days straight for less than $5 million per flight.
That’s a hell of a lot faster, and cheaper, than today’s launches, which can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take years of planning. XS-1 could “create a new paradigm for more routine, responsive and affordable space operations,” according to DARPA.
Three XS-1s carrying a single satellite per trip and working at max speed could, in theory, replenish practically the Pentagon’s entire satellite constellation in a couple of weeks—and faster if each spaceplane carries more than one satellite at a time.
Of course, that assumes that contractors can build fresh spacecraft fast enough to keep up with the XS-1s’ busy launch schedules. To that end, the military is also working hard on simpler, smaller satellites that it can produce quickly and cheaply.
Conceptually, the robotic XS-1 is elegant in its simplicity. It’s basically just a high- and fast-flying drone that can lend a single-stage rocket speed and altitude, making it easier for the rocket (and its satellite payload) to escape Earth’s gravity.
“Our design would allow the autonomous booster to carry the second stage and payload to high altitude and deploy them into space,” Will Hampton, Boeing’s XS-1 program manager, said in a company press release. “The booster would then return to Earth, where it could be quickly prepared for the next flight by applying operation and maintenance principles similar to modern aircraft.”
In effect, the XS-1 replaces the biggest, priciest main stage of a single-use rocket, while saving money by being reusable. You buy the XS-1 once and use it over and over, paying only for fuel and spare parts for each flight.
Full article: Pentagon Preps for Orbital War With New Spaceplane (The Daily Beast)