The US government has launched a program to develop a reusable space plane that could boost satellites into low Earth orbit day after day – and they want your help to do it.
In a recent solicitation, Darpa calls for proposals on the design and fabrication of an unmanned craft that could be flown 10 times in 10 days.
Proposals are due by July 22, and it's expected that the winning prototype will be chosen in 2017 for an award of $140 million.
In Phase II of the Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program, launched this month, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) seeks the prototypes for a craft that contains 'expendable' components for boosting and deploying a satellite, and a reusable stage that would return to Earth.
The first flights are expected to take place as soon as 2019 or 2020.
It's hoped that the proposed craft could one day be used to carry payloads of more than 3,000 pounds to low Earth orbit, while staying under a budget of $5 million per flight.
Demonstrations will need to achieve 10 flights in a 10-day period, and launch a minimum of 900 pounds.
In Phase I, Darpa awarded contracts to three companies to begin outlining the concepts for their proposed spaceplanes.
This included Boeing, working with Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems, working with XCOR Aerospace, and Northrop Grumman, working with Virgin Galactic.
Now, two years have passed, and the agency is opening up the program to include proposals from both public and private organizations.
'During Phase I if the XS-1 program, the space industry has evolved rapidly and we intend to take advantage of multiple impressive technological and commercial advances,' Jess Sponable, Darpa program manager, said last month.
'We intend to leverage those advances along with our Phase I progress to break the cycle of escalating DoD space system launch costs, catalyse lower-cost satellite architectures, and prove that routine and responsive access to space can be achieved as costs and order of magnitude lower than with today's systems.'
The agency says the spaceplane will need to incorporate state-of-the-art technologies in order to achieve high speeds and rapid turnaround.
This could be done using advanced materials, cryogenic tanks, thermal protection, and modular subsystems, they explain.
And, the proposed booster should be suitable for scaling to larger launch systems in the future, Darpa says.
Flight tests will begin in Phase III of the program.
Darpa says XS-1 could one day be available through the commercial sector, allowing the government to rely on this, and any systems that stem from it.
'In an era of proliferating foreign threats to U.S. air and space assets, the need for responsive, low cost access to space is increasingly critical,' the solicitation says.
'XS-1 will directly address the need for small to medium payloads launched using low cost and operationally efficient concepts of employment based on a 'clean pad' approach; i.e., limited facilities and ground support equipment.'