News from Aerospace: XS-1 Experimental Spaceplane

northrop-grumman-xs-1-spaceplaneThe race to produce a new era or reusable and cost-effective spacecraft has been turning out some rather creative and interesting designs. DARPA’s XS-1 Spaceplane is certainly no exception. Developed by Northrop Grumman, in partnership with Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, this vehicle is a major step towards producing launch systems that will dramatically reduce the costs of getting into orbit.

Key to DARPA’s vision is to develop a space-delivery system for the US military that will restore the ability of the US to deploy military satellites ingeniously. In a rather ambitious twist, they want a vehicle that can be launched 10 times over a 10-day period, fly in a suborbital trajectory at speeds in excess of Mach 10, release a satellite launch vehicle while in flight, and reduce the cost of putting a payload into orbit to US$5 million (a tenth of the current cost).

XS-1_1Under DARPA contracts, Boeing, Masten Space Systems, and Northrop Grumman are working on their own versions of the spaceplane. The Northrop plan is to employ a reusable spaceplane booster that, when coupled with an expendable upper stage, can send a 1360 kgs (3,000 pounds) spacecraft into low Earth orbit. By comping reusable boosters with aircraft-like operations on landing, a more cost-effective and resilient spacecraft results.

In flight, the Northrop version of the XS-1 will take advantage of the company’s experience in unmanned aircraft to use a highly autonomous flight system and will release an expendable upper stage, which takes the final payload into orbit. While this is happening, the XS-1 will fly back to base and land on a standard runway like a conventional aircraft, refuel, and reload for the next deployment.

Spaceshiptwo-580x256Northrop is working under a $3.9 million phase one contract with DARPA to produce a design and flight demonstration plan that will allow the XS-1 to not only act as a space launcher, but as a testbed for next-generation hypersonic aircraft. Meanwhile Scaled Composites, based in Mojave, will be in charge of fabrication and assembly while Virgin Galactic will handle commercial spaceplane operations and transition.

Doug Young, the vice president of missile defense and advanced missions at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, had this to say about the collaboration:

Our team is uniquely qualified to meet DARPA’s XS-1 operational system goals, having built and transitioned many developmental systems to operational use, including our current work on the world’s only commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. We plan to bundle proven technologies into our concept that we developed during related projects for DARPA, NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, giving the government maximum return on those investments.

space_elevator2Regardless of which contractor’s design bears fruit, the future of space exploration is clear. In addition to focusing on cutting costs and reusability, it will depend heavily upon public and private sector collaboration. As private space companies grab a larger share of the space tourism and shipping market, they will be called upon to help pick up the slack, and lend their expertise to more ambitious projects.

Examples abound, from putting satellites, supplies and astronauts into orbit, to landing settlers on Mars itself. And who knows? In the foreseeable future, NASA, Russia, China, the ESA and Japan may also be working hand-in-hand with transport and energy companies to make space-based solar power and a space elevator a reality!

Source: gizmag.com, globenewswire.com

News From Space: 3-D Printed Spacecraft

3D_spaceprinting13D-Printing has led to many breakthroughs in the manufacturing industry in recent years. From its humble beginnings assembling models out of ABS plastic, the technology has been growing by leaps and bounds, with everything from construction and food printing to bioprinting becoming available. And as it happens, another major application is being developed by a private company that wants to bring the technology into orbit.

It’s called SpiderFab, a system of technologies that incorporates 3-D printing and robotic assembly to create  “on-orbit” structures and spaceship components (such as apertures, solar arrays, and shrouds). Developed by tech firm Tethers Unlimited, Inc. (TUI), the project is now in its second phase and recently landed a $500,000 development contract from NASA.

spiderfabOne of the greatest challenges of space exploration is the fact that all the technology must first be manufactured on Earth and then shuttled into orbit aboard a rocket or a shroud. The heavier the cargo, the larger the rocket needs to be. Hence, any major undertaking is likely to have a massive price tag attached to it. But by relocating the manufacturing process to a place on-site, aka. in orbit, the entire process will be much cheaper.

Towards this end, the SpiderFab, incorporates two major innovations in terms of transportation and manufacture. The first makes it possible to pack and launch raw materials, like spools of printable polymer, in a cost-effective way using smaller rockets. The second uses patented robotic fabrication systems that will process that material and aggregate it into structural arrangements.

3D_spaceprintingDr. Rob Hoyt, CEO of TUI, had this to say of his company’s brainchild in a recent interview with Co.Design:

SpiderFab is certainly an unconventional approach to creating space systems, and it will enable significant improvements for a wide range of missions.

The unorthodox system is also a solution to the problem that Hoyt began working on two decades ago when he first began working with NASA. While there, he experimented with on-orbit fabrication as a concept, but was limited due to the fact that there were no means available to make it reality. However, once 3-D printing became mainstream, he seized the opportunity presented. As he explains:

I didn’t strike on anything dramatically better than [previous investigations] until about six years ago, when additive manufacturing was really starting to take off. I realized that those techniques could be evolved to enable some dramatic improvements in what we can build in space.

spiderfab3At present, TUI is working on several different models of what the SpiderFab will eventually look like. The first of these is known as the Trusselator, one of many building blocks that will form the factory responsible for producing spacecraft components. The Trusselator is designed to print high-performance truss elements, while another, the Spinneret, will use 3-D printing-like techniques to connect and fuse together clusters of trusses.

Hoyt says that the TUI team will be further testing these processes in the next couple of months, first in the lab and then in a thermal-vacuum chamber. He hopes, however, that they will be able to conduct an on-orbit demonstration of SpiderFab a few years down the line. And with any luck, and more funding, NASA and other agencies may just convert their production process over to orbital 3-D printing facilities.

Alongside concepts like the SpaceX Grasshopper reusable rocket and reusable space craft, 3-D space printing is yet another revolutionary idea that is likely to bring the astronomical (no pun!) costs of space exploration down considerably. With affordability will come growth; and with growth, greater exploration will follow…

Star-Trek-universe

Sources: fastcodesign.com, tethers.com