Darpa has finally picked Boeing to turn its first hypersonic spaceplane into a reality. Dubbed the Phantom Express, it will be a combination of a traditional aeroplane and space launch vehicle aimed at sending satellites into orbit at low costs.
The upcoming supersonic plane is part of the agency's Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) programme. It will be designed to take off vertically and fly unmanned to high altitudes above the Earth. Once it reaches high suborbital altitude, the vehicle will release a mini-rocket or a booster fitted with an engine that can propel a satellite weighing up to 3,000 pounds into polar orbit.
"We're very pleased with Boeing's progress on the XS-1 through Phase 1 of the programme and look forward to continuing our close collaboration in this newly funded progression to Phases 2 and 3 — fabrication and flight," said Jess Sponable, Darpa programme manager, in a statement.
While Phase 1 included conceptualising and propagating the idea of the space vehicle, Phase 2 will include design, construction, and testing of the technology demonstration vehicle all through 2019.
Phase 3 will include 12 to 15 flight tests scheduled for 2020. After multiple tests are conducted, the XS-1 will aim to fly 10 times over 10 consecutive days, at first without payloads and later with a demonstration payload between 900 pounds and 3,000 pounds into low Earth orbit.
No Blue Origin
Although Boeing had paired up with Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin for the first phase, it has decided to go with a different company to make the propulsion system for its spaceplane. The vehicle will now use an AR-22 engine, manufactured by Aerojet Rocketdyne. The AR-22 is similar to the type of engine used to power a Space Shuttle.
The US military has been expanding its space research significantly in the past few years. Last month, the secret US Air Force plane named X-37B, that spent over 700 days in space, came back to Earth raising speculation about its real objective. Many believe the US military may be deploying spy satellites or even weaponised ones to take down satellites of other countries.