Boeing has announced it is developing a new unmanned space plane for the US military, designed to launch satellites into orbit by 2020 at a moment’s notice.
Called the Phantom Express it’s being developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as part of the Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program. It’s intended to travel at hypersonic speeds, which is above Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound, or 6,200 km/h/3,800mph)
“Phantom Express is designed to disrupt and transform the satellite launch process as we know it today, creating a new, on-demand space-launch capability that can be achieved more affordably and with less risk,” said Darryl Davis, President of Boeing Phantom Works, in a statement.
This space plane is designed to launch vertically by itself, without needing additional boosters. It will have a small detachable rocket on top, which will carry a satellite weighing up to 1,360 kilograms (3,000 pounds).
Once the plane reaches the edge of space, it will deploy its rocket and then return to Earth. The rocket will not be recovered, but the plane will land on a runway with a goal of being able to launch again within hours. Each launch is expected to cost as little as $5 million.
Of course, you might be familiar with another Boeing-built space plane, the X-37B, which recently returned from a mysterious mission in orbit. It’s not yet clear if the Phantom Express is a successor to the X-37B (Boeing was rumored to be working on the X-37C), but we have asked Boeing for clarification and will update when we hear back.
Boeing will now build a technology demonstration vehicle by 2019, when it will fire the vehicle’s engines 10 times in 10 days. By 2020, it is expected to perform 12 to 15 flight tests, reaching speeds of up to Mach 10 (10 times the speed of sound).
“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,” said Jess Sponable, DARPA program manager, in a separate statement.
Several vehicles like this are already in operation or development, including Orbital ATK’s Pegasus launcher and Virgin Galactic’s Cosmic Girl, both of which air-launch a rocket from a plane. The Phantom Express will be rather more versatile, though – and may just provide a rapid and cheap way to reach space.