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The U.S. military has long sought quick, low cost access to space along with the ability to operate a satellite launcher like a commercial airliner making daily roundtrips.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which launched an experimental space plane program in 2013, recently settled on a winged design that would be propelled by a version of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-22 engine originally used as the main engine for the American space shuttle.

Prime contractor Boeing Co. said it is applying automation technology developed during testing of the X-37B shuttle to its Phantom Express prototype selected by DARPA.

A key step in the DARPA spaceplane program was verifying propulsion technology. A test engine was ignited ten times in ten days last summer at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, demonstrating the ability to repeatedly fuel, inspect and re-ignite the engine within 24 hours.

Along with quick turnarounds, the goal of DARPA’s XS-1 (Experimental Spaceplane) program is reducing per-flight cost to less than $5 million. Key requirements include the ability to launch a reusable first stage capable of hypersonic speeds and a smaller second stage to boost payloads up to 5,000 pounds into low Earth orbit.

The vehicle would “further break the cost of launch into space, in particular satellite launch,” according to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg.

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Category: Science