Northrop Grumman might be "playing to win" the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's XS-1 programme, but the aerospace firm's interest in a reusable spaceplane for rapidly launching small satellites runs far deeper than any one project or contract.

The company's vice-president of space systems resiliency Doug Young tells Flightglobal that Northrop will likely press forward with a "responsive" space launch concept through "other ways and means" if it isn't downselected for the programme's $140 million demonstration phase.

Northrop is one of three industry teams sponsored by DARPA to bring its competing concept up to the preliminary design review stage. It's teamed with Virgin Galactic but wouldn't confirm if it is using the company's LauncherOne system as an expendable upper stage.

The other teams are Boeing – with Blue Origin – and Masten Space Systems, partnered with XCOR Aerospace.

“We see the real value of this capability to the government’s responsive launch needs and we see a viable niche in the commercial market," says Young. “We’re very serious about it and we’re playing to win.

“If a responsive system can be built and start to fly with some flight rate for the commercial market, then DOD can come in and buy launches. They don’t need to come in and develop the system.”

Young says the vertical takeoff, horizontal landing spaceplane will carry its upper stage rocket much higher than any carrier airplane, meaning it will travel further into space. It will be capable of Mach 10, but won't go into orbit like the Space Shuttle or Boeing's X-37B – making it much cheaper to manufacture and reuse.


Northrop's XS-1 concept

Northrop Grumman

DARPA's requirement is for a completely reusable spaceplane that can launch 10 payloads in 10 days at a price point of $5 million. That would allow military and commercial satellite operators to launch more small satellites more often, or at a moment's notice in an emergency. By comparison, today's hefty "monolithic" satellites cost upwards of $100 million to put into space and they have decades-long life cycles.

“Our business case is driving the number of flights [XS-1] is usable for," says Young. "We’re building it like an airplane, so it will be able to fly many times and certainly without much refurbishment.”

Northrop is just weeks, if not days, away from completing its preliminary design review with the government, and will submit a proposal for Phase II as soon as DARPA issues a request for proposals.

Young expects a downselect by the end of the year and, if chosen, Northrop will jump straight into detailed design work and begin putting suppliers on contract for long-lead parts. Northrop's Scaled Composites business is involved, likely producing complex composite structures, and it's also drawing on expertise from its unmanned systems and hypersonics portfolios.

The detailed design and fabrication phase will continue over the next few years and culminate in a full flight demonstration of 10 launches in 10 days, sometime in late 2019 or 2020.

LauncherOne 640

Virgin's Newton 3-powered LauncherOne will fly later this year

Virgin Galactic

Northrop thinks by that time there will be significant demand from the military and commercial sector to begin operations, and the company is not worried about competition from alternative providers.

Young says if it – and launch companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, Orbital ATK and United Launch Alliance – can truly cut the cost of space access, a strong market will materialise. If not, everybody loses.

“There’s going to be enough launches to go around,” he says. "We believe strongly in the programme and have assessed the market. We’ve assessed and know well what the government’s interests and desires are. But who can project where the market will be in four years?

“Anyone who's involved in XS-1 is going to be making decisions depending on what they see in the marketplace over time.”

DARPA has not limited the upcoming competition to incumbents Northrop, Boeing, and Masten. Lockheed Martin was involved in the original competition, and some other team could emerge as a wildcard. An industry day is planned for April 29.

* This story has been updated to reflect that XS-1 is one of several space launch options Northrop will consider if it doesn’t progress to the demonstration round