DARPA’s planned space vehicle passes key benchmarks

DARPA’s planned space vehicle passes key benchmarks

An artist's concept of DARPA's Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) (Illustration: DARPA)

WASHINGTON — DARPA’s mission to enhance rapid entry and reuse of next-generation space vehicles passed a critical test this month, just as work on a second key area is set to begin.

The military’s innovation wing, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency,  announced on Tuesday that it completed a 10-day test of its new space shuttle engine, the AR-22. They test indicated the engine could be used in a quick-turnaround reusable spacecraft — a project that is atop DARPA’s priority list.

“We completely destroyed previously held records [of] a liquid hydrogen-liquid, oxygen-type engine,” Scott Wierzbanowski, DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane program manager, told reporters in a teleconference Tuesday. “And we shattered this idea that these types of engines can’t be used in a very operable and aircraft-like way.”

The first test flight of the spacecraft system is scheduled for 2021.

The engine was fired 10 times in 10 days, a strenuous test to determine suitability, Wierzbanowski said. He also said the test validates the idea — which is imperative — that a possible reusable spacecraft has a turnaround use speed similar to that of an aircraft.

DARPA has named the spacecraft “Phantom Express,” with its technical name the XS-1. It is designed to launch vertically, jettison a disposable second stage at between 200,000 and 300,000 feet to deploy a satellite into orbit and then glide to the ground for a traditional aircraft landing, Wierzbanowski said.

The goal is for the craft to release more than 3,000 pounds of cargo into orbit for a cost of less than $5 million per flight.

Concurrently, DARPA is releasing a formal Request for Information (RFI) from small launch providers who could launch payloads to low earth orbit (LEO) to also demonstrate capabilities that can launch the XS-1 from anywhere and at any time.

“DARPA wants to demonstrate the ability to launch payloads to orbit on extremely short notice, with no prior knowledge of the payload, destination orbit or launch site, and do it not just once, but twice, in a matter of days,” the agency said in the RFI.

DARPA said it envisions the RFI as the first step in what will be a Launch Challenge between finalists, with two separate launch competitions within weeks of each other at different locations in the United States.

“The commercial industry has embraced advances in manufacturing, microtechnologies, and autonomous launch/range infrastructure, and DARPA seeks to leverage this expertise to transform space system development,” DARPA said in its announcement.

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