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

SpaceShipTwo Makes First Flight!

For years, Richard Branson has been promising the world commercial spaceflight with his proposed aerospace line, Virgin Galactic. And with the advent of SpaceShipTwo, the rocket-powered vehicle designed for this end, the company has been promising to conduct a successful test flight by the end of the year. This past Wednesday, Virgin and the development company – Scaled Composites – delivered on that promise, as SS2 conducted its first fully-loaded glide test successfully and landed safe and sound.

Granted, the company has yet to test out the ship’s rocket motor, the propulsion that will be used to put the ship into the Earth’s atmosphere. However, it was the first flight where the space craft was deployed by itself, without assistance from its carrier, WhiteKnightTwo. It was also the first time the vehicle conducted a glide test with all its components and fuel tanks installed. By showing that it is capable of gliding while fully-loaded, Virgin Galactic has proven that SS2 is capable of making safe landings, which is just as important as getting into space when you think about it!

“It was also the first flight with thermal protection applied to the spaceship’s leading edges,” said Virgin in a press statement. “It followed an equally successful test flight last Friday which saw SpaceShipTwo fly in this configuration but remain mated to its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.”

Virgin also claims it intends to conduct two more glide tests before attempting a powered flight, where the rocket motor will be put to the test and the ship will finally acheive suborbital flight. And once all the bugs are ironed out, Virgin Galactic will then be able to finally offer the sub-orbital rides that have been the subject of talk for many years. One of the first to go with be Branson himself, along with five others who will travel aboard SS2 as it acheive a suborbital flight which will take it over 115,000 meters (350,000 feet) above the Earth and acheive weightlessness for the crew.

Source: Wired.com