Pentagon awards Boeing $6.6mn to develop reusable spacecraft to launch military satellites

The US government has awarded Boeing a $6.6-million contract to design a mini space shuttle-like spacecraft that can launch military satellites and would be able to fly as often as 10 times in 10 days.

The spacecraft – known as Experimental Spaceplane 1 (XS-1) – will be able to fly to the edge of Earth's atmosphere and send satellites into orbit. Those satellites would weigh between 3,000 and 5,000 pounds.

The XS-1 could then fly back, land, refuel, load another satellite, and take off within 24 hours.

That's good news for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which reportedly wants the XS-1 to be able to fly as frequently as 10 times in 10 days.

The Pentagon has been seeking a method to reduce the cost of satellite launches for some time, and hopes the reusable, unmanned spacecraft will be the answer to that wish. DARPA is aiming for each launch to cost less than $5 million, Defense Systems reported.

The new contract will cover what DARPA refers to as Phase 1B of the project, which includes developing the demonstration concept and core technologies, and performing demonstration tasks.

Boeing was initially awarded a $4-million preliminary design contract in 2014, to work on the first phase of the spacecraft. Other companies involved in the development include Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, Virgin Galactic, Masten Space Systems, and XCOR.

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Work on the newest phase is expected to be completed by August 2016. DARPA is aiming to launch a prototype to perform a trial mission no later than 2019. After that launch, the Pentagon will decide whether it wants to build the XS-1 for regular use.