Aerospace and defense contractor Northrop Grumman recently unveiled its concept for the Pentagon’s new space plane, the XS-1 — an unmanned drone-shuttle capable of carrying small and medium-sized satellites into orbit cheaply and autonomously.
“It would be a spacecraft that most resembles what people see in the movies,” former Air Force Space Command Officer Brian Weeden told War is Boring about the concept craft, which is being headed up by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Northrop is competing with Boeing and Masten Space Systems for the contract to build the final product.
“If we could pull it off, it would enable much cheaper and faster access to space,” Weeden said. “Something that many people see as the key to opening up space development.”
While a typical single-use rocket-launched satellite takes months to plan at a typical cost of more than $50-million per launch, DARPA wants the XS-1 to be capable of deploying within hours, and able to execute 10 launches in just as many days at a cost of $5-million each, according to the report.
Designing such a craft carries a host of engineering obstacles, including adding permanent systems like landing equipment, fuel tanks and boosters. The latter two are typically shed during the course of a multi-stage rocket launch.
More weight also means more necessary power to launch the vehicle, which in turn means more fuel — bringing us back to weight again.
Reusable spacecraft like the space shuttle also require extraordinary maintenance as a result of the extreme heat and vibration the craft sustains during launch and reentry.
Northrop’s concept attempts to tackle some of these issues by flying the XS-1 itself into sub-orbital space, where it will fire a single-use rocket carrying a satellite into low-Earth orbit before gliding back down to the surface.
If completed, the XS-1 — in addition to carrying commercial payloads — will be used to launch newly developed small spy satellites tested by the Pentagon’s National Reconnaissance Office for anti-terrorism operations.
The XS-1 comes amid a rapidly reemerging American space effort, which includes an Air Force space drone currently in orbit, a new manned capsule and rocket program for deep-space missions currently under developement by NASA, and a reusable rocket built by private space transportation and vehicle developer SpaceX, which has already been tested successfully. (VIDEO: Watch SpaceX’s Reusable Rocket Fly Back To Earth)