May 24, 2017 / 10:25 PM / 4 months ago

Boeing, DARPA to build prototype spaceplane

Boeing Co's logo is seen above the front doors of its largest jetliner factory in Everett, Washington, U.S. January 13, 2017. REUTERS/Alwyn Scott

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on Wednesday said it will invest up to $146 million in an alliance with Boeing (BA.N) to build an experimental spaceplane that can deliver small satellites into orbit on a daily basis.

The project, known as XS-1, is expected to debut in 2020. Boeing declined to say how much it will put into development of the vehicle, which it calls Phantom Express, with DARPA, which is an agency under the U.S. Department of Defense.

About the size of a business jet, Phantom Express will take off like a rocket, boost itself beyond the atmosphere and release an expendable second-stage rocket and satellite, then turn around and land like an airplane on a runway.

The DARPA-Boeing venture joins a race to design a generation of reusable launch vehicles designed to cut the cost of putting payloads into space. Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Blue Origin, a venture backed by Amazon.com Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, are working on reusable launch vehicles.

“The reusable first stage … would be prepared for the next flight, potentially within hours,” DARPA spokesman Jared Adams wrote in an email. The goal of the XS-1 program is to fly 10 flights within 10 days.

Boeing said it is still evaluating launch sites, but DARPA’s Adams said Phantom Express would fly from Cape Canaveral, where two other Boeing space programs are based.

The company took over one of the hangars used by NASA’s now-retired space shuttles for a commercial space taxi that will ferry astronauts and potentially paying passengers to and from the International Space Station, a $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth. The first flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is scheduled for next year.

Two other former shuttle hangers house a pair of Boeing-built robotic spaceplanes developed and operated under the Air Force’s X-37B program. The vehicles, which resemble miniature space shuttles, have made four flights so far, the last of which ended on May 8 after a secretive two-year mission.

Unlike the X-37B which is launched aboard an expendable rocket, Phantom Express will get itself into space. The vehicle will be powered by a liquid-fueled Aerojet Rocketdyne AR-22 engine, which is based on the now-retired space shuttle main engine.

An upper-stage motor for Phantom Express has not yet been announced. The spaceplane is designed to loft satellites weighing up to 3,000 pounds (1,361 kg) into low-altitude orbits around Earth.

Reporting by Irene Klotz; editing by Joseph White

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