DARPA’s Secretive “Phantom Express” Hypersonic Spaceplane Passes Key Test

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DARPA selected the Boeing Company in May 2017 to complete advanced design work for the agency’s Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program, which intends to develop and fly the first of an entirely new class of hypersonic spacecraft that would bolster national security by providing short-notice, low-cost satellite launches into Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

“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,” Jess Sponable, DARPA program manager, said during a press conference in May 2017. “We’re very pleased with Boeing’s progress on the XS-1 through Phase 1 of the program and look forward to continuing our close collaboration in this newly funded progression to Phases 2 and 3—fabrication and flight.”

With XS-1 Phase 1 recently completed, it seems as DARPA has transitioned into XS-1 Phase 2, which includes design, construction, and testing of the technology demonstration vehicle through 2019. It also calls for test firing the vehicle’s engine on the ground ten times in 10 days to demonstrate propulsion readiness for flight tests, which was just completed on July 06 by Aerojet, Boeing, and DARPA.

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-22 rocket engine fires during a test at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. (Source: NASA / DARPA Photo)

Technicians inspect the AR-22 rocket engine after a hot-fire test. (Source: NASA / DARPA Photo)

Aerojet Rocketdyne successfully test-fired its AR-22 rocket engine an unprecedented ten times in 240 hours at NASA Stennis Space Center last week, demonstrating just how quick the launch vehicle, dubbed the Phantom Express, can be reloaded with fuel and relaunched.

Why focus on relaunching spaceplanes at a moments notice? Well, the Pentagon sees a shooting conflict on the horizon, and it is not on land, but instead in LEO.

To combat such a threat, President Trump recently declared the ‘Space Force’ as the sixth branch of the United States Armed Force. Coincidence? Not at all.

XS-1 Phantom Express  (Source: NASA / DARPA Photo)

“Aerojet Rocketdyne has continued to refine the reusable engine technology we originally developed for the Space Shuttle program,” said Eileen Drake, Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and president.

“With the AR-22 we are taking reusability to the next level and have demonstrated that daily, affordable access to space is within reach,” she said.

“Phantom Express is a disruptive, reusable launch system. Successfully completing this highly demanding rocket engine test series validated a new level of booster capability for this transformational launch vehicle,” continued Drake.

“Turning the AR-22 within 24 hours repeatedly over 10 days demonstrates the capability of this engine and the ability to enable rapid, responsive access to space,” she added.

Thanks to the successful test, the Phantom Express program is on track for XS-1 Phase 3, which includes 12 to 15 flight tests, currently scheduled for 2020/21. After multiple shakedown flights to decrease risk, the XS-1 would aim to fly 10 times over ten consecutive days, at first without payloads. If successful, subsequent flights could send the hypersonic spaceplane to Mach 10 and deliver a payload between 900 pounds and 3,000 pounds into LEO.

DARPA TV: Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) Phase 2/3 Concept Video

Last week, DARPA director Steve Walker visited NASA Stennis Space Center to watch one of the engine tests. He praised the team of researchers on their support of national security, highlighting their frequency of tests was impressive.

The ten test firings took place in a test period conducted between June 26 and July 6.

“Aerojet Rocketdyne is very proud to have such an important role in a program that could literally revolutionize space access with a vehicle capable of launching on a daily basis,” Drake said.

“With the Defense Department and commercial sector anticipating a shift toward constellations of smaller satellites that can be replenished quickly, the Phantom Express is the right program at the right time for the nation,” Drake added.

The Phantom Express is designed to launch vertically and land horizontally to allow the quickest return to home. The spaceplane boosts the Pentagon’s mission of space domination, similar to the White House’s recent communique. The reusable hypersonic spaceplane should be capable of delivering 3,000 pounds of payload to LEO at the cost of less than $5 million a flight. Those performance levels represent a “sweet spot” for the Pentagon as well as commercial applications, said Scott Wierzbanowski, DARPA’s program manager for the Experimental Spaceplane.

Could the Phantom Express hypersonic spaceplane be one of the first aircraft commissioned for space wars under President Trump’s new Space Force?

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