DARPA selects Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne to design experimental spaceplane

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne will complete design work for its hypersonic spaceplane aircraft.

This selection marks the beginning of phase 2 of the project (XS-1) which will last till 2019 and includes designing, constructing and testing the technology.

The DARPA project aims to develop a launch vehicle that will enable faster and cheaper space launches. The spaceplane is intended to launch satellites into low-earth orbit and hopes to improve the response time to loss of commercial or military satellites.

Gif shows the XS-1 launching into low-earth orbit. Images via DARPA.

The XS-1 project

The XS-1 is a project to develop an unmanned vehicle that is fully reusable and the size of a business jet. Once launched the upper part, with the payload, will detach allowing the first phase of the aircraft, the part that resembles a jet, to descend back to earth and land horizontally. DARPA believes the aircraft could have the potential to then relaunch the same day and perhaps within hours.

DARPA program manager, Jess Sponable explains the concept behind the spaceplane,

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,

Once launched the payload detaches from the plane-like structure. Images via DARPA. 

Manufacturing the spaceplane

Naturally, DARPA has not fully disclosed how the spaceplane will be manufactured, however it “intends to increase efficiencies by integrating numerous state-of-the-art technologies.” DARPA has enlisted Aeroject Rocketdyne to develop the AR-22 engine for the spaceplane and as frequently reported the Californian company is very familiar with 3D printing rocket components.

Aerojet Rocketdyne announced recently its 3D printed AR1 rocket engine has reached an important development milestone. Aerojet Rocketdyne has also scaled up the size of the Baby Bantam fully 3D printed rocket engine to increase thrust by 500%. It is therefore highly probable that Aerojet Rocketdyne will use 3D printing to develop the AR-22 engine.

Gif shows the plane landing back on Earth ready for later flights. Images via DARPA. 

Withstanding hypersonic flight 

Additionally, DARPA states the spaceplane will also include “lightweight composite cryogenic propellant tanks to hold liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants.” This area may also integrate 3D printing as for an unrelated project Sciaky has 3D printed a ballast tank for a submarine and other companies are using large format additive manufacturing techniques to produce fuel tanks for the space industry.

Similarly, with Boeing contracted to design the spaceplane, the company may again look towards 3D printed titanium. Boeing has recently announced it will begin implementing Norsk Titanium’s 3D printed titanium on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

XS-1 will also feature composite metallic wings to withstand physical and thermal stresses of the suborbital hypersonic flight and DARPA will develop automated flight technologies.

As previously reported, the development of high temperature ceramic materials and their subsequent 3D printing may find applications in hypersonic flight where the leading edge of any vehicle travelling at such speed will experience extreme temperatures.

During phase 2 of development, the aircraft will be tested by firing the rocket engine 10 times in 10 days. While phase 3, scheduled to begin in 2020, would then involve several flight tests over a short period of time. Both tests hope to prove the vehicles reliability and ability to launch repeatedly.

Video shows the Electron rocket launching. Video via Rocket Lab on twitter. 

Rocket lab launches Electron

Elsewhere in the space industry, Californian company Rocket Lab has successfully launched its 3D printed Electron rocket into space. The Electron utilizes a 3D printed engine and the launch window for the rocket began earlier this week. However, the unpredictable New Zealand weather delayed the rocket several days.

The XS-1 spaceplane hopes to mitigate the constrains of window launches and be ready to go at any time. DARPA aims to reduce launch preparation to days rather than many months or years.

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Featured image shows an artist’s concept of the XS-1 spaceplane. Image via DARPA.