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DARPA Gives ‘Thumbs Up’ to Boeing’s Phantom Express

Posted on May 31st, 2017 by in New Materials & Applications

Phantom Express Artist Concept

Phantom Express Concept by Boeing [cropped from original] via Boeing.com

DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) steps closer to realization with the Agency selecting the Boeing Company as partner. A new class of reusable hypersonic aircraft, success of the Phantom Express will require advancements in both technical capabilities and ground operations.

Selection of Boeing was announced by DARPA signalling the completion of the program’s conceptual design Phase 1 begun in November of 2013. The Boeing Phantom Express design was chosen above concepts submitted by a partnership of Masten Space Systems and XCOR Aerospace as well as one submitted through a collaboration of Northrop Grumman and Virgin Galactic. Phase 2 of the program includes the design and construction of a technology demonstration vehicle by 2019. The Phantom Express takes to the air in Phase 3 with more than a dozen launches planned in 2020.

Realizing the program’s ambitious goal of a fully reusable unmanned space vehicle will require both significant developments in new technologies as well as continued refinement of proven technologies and ground operations. The vehicle would launch vertically with no external boosters using an Aerojet Rocketdyne AR-22 engine similar to those used on the NASA space shuttle. An expendable upper stage would be used only to deploy the intended payload of up to a 3,000 pound satellite. The vehicle would then return to Earth and land horizontally on a runway like a conventional aircraft.

“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.

Pushing the technological envelope, Phases 2 and 3 of the program will advance and refine several technologies including:

  • Composite fuel tanks: Refillable tanks holding the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants for each flight
  • Hybrid wings and control surfaces: A blend of composite and metallic materials capable of withstanding both the physical stresses and temperatures of suborbital hypersonic flight
  • Autonomous flight and operations: Technologies for automated flight including those developed by DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program

While still only a concept, you can already appreciate the innovative approach the Phantom Express proposes in the following video:

If successful, the Phantom Express program could revolutionize the commercial satellite launch industry providing low-cost, short notice access to space. Much like the earlier space programs beginning in the 60’s, technologies uncovered and developed as part of this program could work their way into other industries, improving our lives in ways we have yet to recognize. ‘Space’ may not be the final frontier as proposed by Gene Roddenberry, but programs such as the XS-1 keep it a great source of inspiration and technological innovation for future generations.

What do you think of the DARPA and Boeing’s proposed Phantom Express program? Tell us about your quest for unconventional knowledge and what it could mean for the future of your products or companies. Share your thoughts in the comments section below and don’t forget to follow us on your favorite social media channel.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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