The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA has announced that it has selected Boeing to develop the prototype of an autonomous, reusable space plane designed to put up small (up to 3,000-pound) satellites into low Earth Orbit practically on demand. The space plane will be called the Phantom Express and will, it is hoped, disrupt the satellite launch industry.

What will the Phantom Express do?

The Phantom Express would launch vertically and fly to the Edge Of Space. Then it would launch a second stage that would deploy the satellite into low Earth orbit.

The space plane would then land back at the launch site it took off from horizontally, much like the space shuttle used to do. Unlike the shuttle, the Phantom Express would be turned around much like an airplane and then be launched again in a matter of hours to a day. The capabilities that that would garner for the American aerospace sector cannot be overestimated.

What technology will go into the Boeing space plane?

The Phantom Express would use an Aerojet Rocketdyne AR-22 engine, derived from the space shuttle's main engine, fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The space plane would have an advanced airframe and a thermal protection shield that will, unlike the shuttle’s, not have to be repaired after every mission.

The shield will allow the Phantom Express to descend from the edge of space after having released the second stage.

What would this new launch vehicle do?

A launch vehicle that can fly once a day would likely reduce the launch costs of payloads of its class by orders of magnitude. The commercial version of the Phantom Express would become the go-to launch vehicle for any satellite headed for low Earth orbit of 3.000 pounds and under.

Indeed, such a vehicle would cause the industry to keep their payloads at that weight in order to take advantage of the Phantom Express’ capabilities. The space plane would also likely deploy smaller payloads beyond LEO for the same price, including CubeSats that would voyage to deep space and small probes to the lunar surface.

Military applications

Launch on demand would provide the American military with powerful capabilities in any armed conflict. Both Russia and China are developing weapons designed to take out American military satellites. A military version of the Phantom Express might be able to replace such satellites quicker than they can be taken out. The space plane might also be able to rapidly deploy weapons in space that can attack enemy space assets with greater frequency.