Northrop Grumman has been awarded a contract to develop a preliminary design and flight demonstration plan for the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) programme.
Under the terms of a 13-month, $3.9m phase one contract, the company has partnered with Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic to define its concept for XS-1 aircraft.
Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems missile defence and advanced missions vice-president Doug Young said: "Our team is uniquely qualified to meet DARPA's XS-1 operational system goals, having built and transitioned many developmental systems to operational use, including our current work on the world's only commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo.
"We plan to bundle proven technologies into our concept that we developed during related projects for DARPA, Nasa and the US Air Force Research Laboratory, giving the government maximum return on those investments."
The company's design is expected to be built around operability and affordability, emphasising aircraft-like operations including a clean pad launch using a transporter erector launcher, minimal infrastructure and ground crew.
The proposed platform would be capable of highly autonomous flight operations that utilise Northrop's unmanned aircraft systems experience, and would demonstrate aircraft-like horizontal landing and recovery on standard runways.
The reusable aircraft-like operations of the platform are expected to help lower military and commercial light spacecraft launch costs by a factor of ten from existing launch costs in the payload class.
Scaled Composites will lead fabrication and assembly of the platform, while Virgin Galactic will head commercial spaceplane operations and transition.
Initiated in 2010, the XS-1 programme seeks to develop a reusable first stage of a space transport system for access to Earth's orbit.
The spacecraft features a reusable booster, which when coupled with an expendable upper stage provides affordable, available and responsive space lift for 3,000lb class spacecraft into low Earth orbit.
Image: An artistic impression of Northrop Grumman's Experimental Spaceplane XS-1. Photo: courtesy of Northrop Grumman Corp.