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"Phantom Express" approved for quick launches into low Earth orbit

June 10, 2017 Updated: June 10, 2017 at 7:58 pm
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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is moving ahead with a Boeing-designed space plan designated XS-1. The agency plans an agressive set of tests, including 10 launches in 10 days. (Image courtesy of Boeing via DARPA)

The military's next reusable space plane has gotten the go-ahead from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and could be in flight tests by 2020.

The agency picked Boeing's futuristic XS-1 for the tests, and it is being called the biggest revolution for military space programs since Redstone rockets took their first flights in the 1950s.

"The program aims to achieve a capability well out of reach today - launches to low Earth orbit in days, as compared to the months or years of preparation currently needed to get a single satellite on orbit," the agency said in a news release.

The unmanned craft appears to be a beefier version of Boeing's X-37B space plane, which also stemmed from a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project. The X-37 program includes a vehicle that recently landed after two years in orbit. The craft carried an experimental thruster and a NASA test aboard, but Air Force brass have been mum as to the X-37's other missions.

The XS-1, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency says, would be the size of a business jet and able to fly at 10 times the speed of sound. Boeing has named the craft "Phantom Express" and says it will be 100 feet long and 24 feet tall.

And unlike its smaller cousin, Phantom Express could launch itself to orbit without the Atlas booster used by the X-37.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told The Gazette last month that she's pursuing new methods to get satellites into orbit quickly as the service focuses on what she fears will be a coming war that reaches orbit.

The military relies on satellites for communications, navigation, missile warning, targeting and intelligence.

If the Air Force's satellites are hit, American troops on the ground could lose battles, Wilson and others worry.

The XS-1 could help ease those concerns.

"Success will depend upon significant advances in both technical capabilities and ground operations, but would revolutionize the nation's ability to recover from a catastrophic loss of military or commercial satellites, upon which the nation today is critically dependent," the agency said.

The flight test program proposed for XS-1 is, by far, the most ambitious planned for an American space craft.

"In its pursuit of aircraft-like operability, reliability, and cost-efficiency, DARPA and Boeing are planning to conduct a flight test demonstration of XS-1 technology, flying 10 times in 10 days, with an additional final flight carrying the upper-stage payload delivery system," Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said.

That upper stage, carried atop the XS-1, would be used to insert satellites in orbit.

"We're delighted to see this truly futuristic capability coming closer to reality," Brad Tousley, director of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Tactical Technology Office, said in statement. "Demonstration of aircraft-like, on-demand, and routine access to space is important for meeting critical Defense Department needs and could help open the door to a range of next-generation commercial opportunities."

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