The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has picked Boeing [BA] over two other companies to design, build and test an unmanned, reusable spaceplane that could deploy small satellites, DARPA and Boeing announced May 24.

Boeing edged out competitors Masten Space Systems and Northrop Grumman [NOC] to become the prime contractor for the Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program.

An artist's rendering of Boeing's Phantom Express. (Courtesy of Boeing)
An artist’s rendering of Boeing’s Phantom Express. (Courtesy of Boeing)

Boeing’s Phantom Express will be powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne [AJRD] AR-22 engine, a version of the legacy Space Shuttle main engine. Boeing was previously teamed with Blue Origin but switched to the AR-22 “as it offers a flight-proven, reusable engine to meet the DARPA mission requirements,” a Boeing spokeswoman said.

Roughly the size of a business jet, the XS-1 is designed to take off vertically like a rocket, fly at hypersonic speeds and land horizontally on Earth like an airplane.

DARPA plans to conduct 12 to 15 flight tests in 2020. After multiple “shakedown” flights, the XS-1 will fly 10 times in 10 days without payloads and at speeds of up to Mach 5. It will later fly as fast as Mach 10 and use an expendable upper stage to deploy a low-Earth-orbit satellite weighing between 900 and 3,000 pounds.

DARPA said the program could lead to a commercial service that costs as little as $5 million per launch, a small fraction of today’s satellite launch systems, and that provides “launch on demand,” compared to the months or years it currently takes to prepare to send a satellite into orbit.

“Demonstration of aircraft-like, on-demand, and routine access to space is important for meeting critical Defense Department needs and could help open the door to a range of next-generation commercial opportunities,” said Brad Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, which oversees the XS-1.

Boeing and DARPA will both kick in money for the program. DARPA’s share is $146 million. Boeing declined to disclose its investment, citing the competitive nature of the space-access market.

Boeing said it will design the vehicle in Southern California and is evaluating proposals for the launch and landing location.