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​DARPA selects Boeing for unmanned XS-1 spaceplane

Just off the heels of its X-37B landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Boeing nabbed the contract to design the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s XS-1 spaceplane programme.

DARPA selected the Boeing-Blue Origin team out of three industry partners the agency has been working with to develop the reusable,unmanned XS-1 design. Masten Space Systems-XCOR Aerospace and Northrop Grumman-Virgin Galactic also participated in Phase 1 of DARPA’s programme. Boeing will pursue fabrication and flight in the next two phases.

The hypersonic aircraft, which Boeing has dubbed Phantom Express, will deploy a small, expendable upper stage to launch 1,361 kg ((3,000lb) satellites into low Earth orbit, according to a 24 May release from Boeing Phantom Works. Today, single satellites can take months or years of preparation to reach orbit, but Boeing hopes XS-1 could launch to low Earth orbit in days.

Once Phantom Express reaches the edge of space, the aircraft would deploy its second stage and return to Earth by landing on a runway.

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

The XS-1 programme mirrors a similar DARPA effort, the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA), which also sought a less expensive way to launch satellites. DARPA canceled the ALASA, which used Boeing’s F-15, due to safety concerns stemming from rocket fuel explosions.

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