In a partnership with Boeing the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has committed to investing $146 million to develop an experimental spaceplane capable of delivering into orbit small satellites on a regular basis. These rocket will have a weight of up to 1,361 kg or 3,000 pounds.
It is not clear, however, how much Boeing will invest in the project in which it is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Defense agency. Other companies that were competing to be awarded the project include Masten Space Systems and Northrop Grumman Corporation.
Codenamed XS-1, the project will debut in 2020. The size of the spaceplane, which Boeing is calling Phantom Express, is about that of a private business jet. When taking off, it will employ techniques used by rockets before boosting itself into the atmosphere and beyond. In space it will release an expendable satellite and second-stage rocket. Then it will turn around before landing on a runway just like regular airplanes.
After landing the spaceplane would be ready for the next journey in a time that is similar to what it takes to prepare a commercial plane for the next flight.
“The reusable first stage … would be prepared for the next flight, potentially within hours,” a spokesperson for DARPA, Jared Adams, said.
Within 10 days it is expected that the Phantom Express will fly for at least 10 flights. It is also expected that the cost of each launch will come down to about $5 million. Currently the cost of launching an orbital rocket runs into tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Phantom Express by an engine manufactured by Aerojet Rocketdyne, the AR-22. The engine will be liquid-fueled and is based on the main engine of the space shuttle which has since been retired.
Currently Boeing is conducting an evaluation of launch sites. Adams however disclosed that Phantom Express would be launching from Cape Canaveral, the location of two other space programs run by Boeing.
Phantom Express will be joining a quest that other firms such as Blue Origin and Space X are already in to develop reusable launch vehicles with a view to reducing the cost of sending payloads into space. Space X is a venture that has the backing of the chief executive officer of Tesla, Elon Musk, while Blue Origin is a venture that has the backing of the chief executive officer of Amazon, Jeff Bezos.