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Space Planes: The Next Frontier in Ultrafast Space Transportation, Satellite Launches, Prompt Global Strike, and Space Security

Introduction

In the vast expanse of space exploration, a new era is dawning with the advent of space planes. Combining the best attributes of aircraft and spacecraft, these remarkable vehicles hold immense potential for ultrafast space transportation, satellite launches, prompt global strike capabilities, and enhanced space security. In this article, we will delve into the groundbreaking possibilities that space planes bring to the forefront of space exploration and security.

 

Spaceplane is a winged vehicle that acts as an aircraft while in the atmosphere and as a spacecraft while in space.  To do so, spaceplanes must incorporate features of both aircraft and spacecraft. Space Shuttle is a spaceplane, takes off vertically using rockets, but when it comes back to the ground it uses its wings for lift and lands like a plane. Another, Dream Chaser, is under development.

 

Spaceplanes operate at either a sub-orbital or an orbital level: a sub-orbital flight is one that reaches space but does not complete a full ‘orbit’ of the Earth. Orbital spaceplanes tend to be more similar to conventional spacecraft, while sub-orbital spaceplanes tend to be more similar to fixed-wing aircraft. All spaceplanes to date have been rocket-powered but then landed as unpowered gliders.

One of the reason Spaceplanes are being developed is  also because of increasing interest of people in space tourism, people who want to visit space.

Ultrafast Space Transportation

Imagine traveling from one side of the planet to the other in a matter of hours. With the development of hypersonic space planes, this concept is no longer science fiction. These high-speed vehicles have the potential to revolutionize intercontinental travel by reaching speeds of Mach 5 or higher.

By skimming the edge of space, they can reduce travel times drastically, opening up new frontiers for global connectivity and transforming the way we approach international travel. Spaceplanes can enable intercontinental travel at very high speeds, travelling on a sub-orbital trajectory, journey times from the UK to Australia could be cut from the current duration of around 20 hours to as little as two hours.

 

Satellite Launches

Spaceplanes offer a game-changing approach to satellite launches. Traditional satellite deployments often involve expensive and disposable rocket stages, limiting mission frequency and increasing costs. Current satellite launch systems, require scheduling years in advance for an extremely limited inventory of available slots. Moreover, launches often cost hundreds of millions of dollars each, due in large part to the massive amounts of dedicated infrastructure and large number of personnel required.

 

However, reusable space planes can take off and land horizontally like conventional aircraft, making them ideal for launching satellites into orbit. By eliminating the need for expendable rockets, space planes enable more affordable and frequent satellite launches, fostering advancements in communication, Earth observation, and scientific research. Spaceplanes will reduce the access to space for launching payloads.

 

Sub-orbital spaceplanes will be able to insert small satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) or into geostationary orbit. Spaceplanes could also launch constellations of small satellites that do not require the weight capability, or large expense, associated with traditional payload launches sold by United Launch Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin Corp. joint venture, Arianespace, or Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The solar-powered space planes were built by Boeing and feature a miniature payload bay to host experiments or smaller satellites.

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Space Planes: Exploring the Final Frontier

Military Capability and Space Security

They shall also provide revolutionary military capability like prompt global strike, launch on demand, satellite servicing and antisatellite missions.

Prompt Global Strike Capabilities

The capability to strike targets swiftly and precisely from anywhere on Earth is a vital component of modern defense strategies. Space planes can play a significant role in prompt global strike capabilities. With their ability to rapidly traverse the globe, these vehicles could deliver conventional or kinetic payloads to any location, providing a prompt and effective response to emerging threats. The speed, precision, and global reach of space planes make them a powerful tool for maintaining national security and deterrence.

The U.S. Air Force has at least two reusable X-37B spacecraft in its fleet, and both have flown multiple flights.

 

Enhanced Space Security

Space security is becoming increasingly critical as our reliance on space-based assets grows. Space planes offer unique advantages in bolstering space security measures. By serving as reconnaissance platforms, they can monitor and gather vital information about potential threats to space-based assets. Additionally, space planes equipped with robotic systems could be utilized for satellite servicing and maintenance missions, ensuring the longevity and functionality of essential satellites while reducing space debris.

 

Spaceplane Challenges

Spaceplanes, with their unique combination of spacecraft and aircraft capabilities, face a myriad of challenges that span design, engineering, and operations. One of the primary challenges is the complex aerodynamics and flight trajectory required for horizontal takeoff to reach orbit. Unlike traditional rockets that follow a relatively short vertical path, spaceplanes have to sustain high speeds through the atmosphere for an extended period. This subjects them to intense aerodynamic loads, vibrations, and accelerations, necessitating robust structural designs that can withstand these forces.

Another significant technical challenge lies in managing the high-speed airflow during supersonic flight. Air-breathing engines, such as scramjets or combined-cycle engines, rely on atmospheric oxygen for combustion. However, at supersonic speeds, the air entering the engines becomes extremely hot. Designing an engine that can rapidly cool this air to sub-zero temperatures within a fraction of a second is a formidable task. Although some designs incorporate precooling components, it introduces additional weight that needs to be carefully managed.

On-orbit operations present further challenges for spaceplanes. They must rely on power sources like solar panels, batteries, or fuel cells to operate, maneuver in space, maintain thermal equilibrium, control orientation, and establish communication links. Additionally, the thermal and radiological environments in space impose additional stresses on the vehicle, requiring effective thermal management systems. These challenges must be addressed alongside accomplishing the primary mission objectives, such as satellite deployment or conducting scientific experiments.

Atmospheric reentry poses a critical challenge for spaceplanes. The process of shedding significant velocity generates extreme heating, requiring effective thermal protection systems (TPS) to safeguard the vehicle’s interior structure. The failure of the TPS can have catastrophic consequences, as demonstrated by the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Therefore, meticulous design, maintenance, and inspection of the TPS are crucial to ensure the safe return of the spaceplane.

Actuation of aerodynamic control surfaces and the inclusion of landing gear are additional challenges that spaceplanes must overcome. Control surfaces must be designed and actuated to ensure stable flight throughout various stages, while landing gear adds extra mass that impacts the vehicle’s performance. Finding the right balance between functionality and weight trade-offs is vital to optimize the spaceplane’s overall capabilities.

Engine weight and efficiency pose further hurdles. Current spaceplane engines tend to be heavier than conventional jet or rocket engines. Unlike the fuel weight that decreases during the mission, the engine weight remains constant. Therefore, reducing the weight of the engine is crucial to improve fuel efficiency and overall performance. Striking a balance between weight reduction and maintaining the reliability of propulsion systems is an ongoing challenge for future spaceplane designs.

The extreme conditions experienced during high-altitude hypersonic flight regimes require spaceplanes to be constructed from advanced materials and incorporate active cooling mechanisms. The leading edge surfaces of the vehicle face high dynamic pressures, temperatures, and heat flows. Ensuring the structural integrity of the spaceplane under these conditions necessitates the use of advanced materials and innovative cooling techniques.

Despite the technological advancements and progress made in spaceplane development, operational deployments remain limited. Only two spaceplanes, the Space Shuttle and the Boeing X-37B, have entered service to date. The continued operational sustainability of spaceplanes poses challenges that need to be addressed through ongoing research, development, and refinement.

In conclusion, the challenges faced by spaceplanes are multifaceted and demanding. Overcoming these challenges requires innovative solutions, technological advancements, and a keen focus on safety and operational considerations. As the development of spaceplanes continues, addressing these hurdles will pave the way for efficient, reliable, and commercially viable spaceplane technologies, bringing us closer to the realization of a new era in space exploration and transportation.

 

Space Plane progress

Spaceplane technology has been making remarkable progress in recent years, with several countries actively pursuing their development. Notable achievements include the successful launches of spaceplanes like the Space Shuttle, Buran, and the X-37, as well as ongoing projects like the Dream Chaser and Dawn Aerospace’s drone-launched rocket system. These advancements are driving the exploration of ultrafast space transportation, satellite launches, prompt global strike capabilities, and space security.

The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane has garnered attention for its secretive missions and long-duration flights in Earth orbit. Currently on its sixth orbital mission, this unmanned spaceplane has already spent over 800 days in orbit, surpassing its original design capabilities. Its payloads and mission objectives remain undisclosed, adding to the intrigue surrounding this cutting-edge technology.

Dawn Aerospace is pushing the boundaries of spaceplane technology with its drone-launched rocket system. The company aims to achieve suborbital flights and microgravity payloads, while also working towards developing an orbital launch system. The goal is to apply aviation principles to space transportation, allowing for flexible takeoff locations worldwide and reducing the need for extensive ground infrastructure.

Boeing and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) have partnered to develop a reusable suborbital spaceplane known as the XS-1. This project focuses on creating an aerospace platform that provides hypersonic access to space, bolstering U.S. national security. However, in January 2020, Boeing withdrew from the Experimental Spaceplane program, though the objectives of the program remain of interest and may be pursued through separate efforts.

China is also making significant strides in spaceplane technology. In September 2020, China launched an experimental spaceplane that could potentially lead to human space transportation capabilities. Although the details surrounding its mission remain undisclosed, the successful landing after a two-day mission indicates progress in developing a reusable crewed spaceplane. China’s pursuit of spaceplane technology aligns with its ambitious crewed space program, which includes the operational Shenzhou spacecraft and a new deep space vehicle.

Other countries are also joining the race to develop spaceplanes. The European Space Agency is working on its autonomous Space Rider flying laboratory, scheduled to launch in 2023. Additionally, India has plans to develop its own mini spaceplane in the coming years, further expanding the global interest and potential applications of this technology.

The rapid progress in spaceplane development holds immense promise for the future of space exploration and transportation. These advanced vehicles have the potential to revolutionize satellite launches, provide rapid response capabilities, and enhance space security. As countries continue to invest in research and development, we can expect even more exciting advancements in spaceplane technology, ushering in a new era of efficient and versatile space travel.

 

The First Dream Chaser vehicle takes shape

Sierra Space is making significant progress on its first Dream Chaser spaceplane, known as Tenacity. The company has completed structural testing and is now focused on final integration and testing. The vehicle will soon be shipped to NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility for thermal vacuum testing. Sierra Space CEO, Tom Vice, expressed excitement about the progress and mentioned the development of tourism flights to commercial space stations like Orbital Reef, a project in collaboration with Blue Origin.

Sierra Space has also hinted at the potential for a version of Dream Chaser designed for national security missions. However, details regarding the differences from the cargo or crew versions remain limited. Speculation suggests that this version could possess capabilities similar to the secretive X-37B spaceplane operated by the U.S. Space Force.

Sierra Space has also discussed making a version of Dream Chaser for national security missions, but offered few specifics about how it would be different from the cargo or crew versions. There has been speculation it would have capabilities similar to the U.S. Space Force’s X-37B spaceplane, whose missions have been largely shrouded in secrecy.

Virgin Galactic World’s largest all-carbon composite Spaceplane for commercial human spaceflight

Virgin Galactic’s space flight experience offers a unique journey, featuring an air launch, rocket-powered ascent, moments of weightlessness, and breathtaking views of Earth. It is the first human-piloted commercial vehicle to reach space. The system comprises two vehicles: SpaceShipTwo, a reusable spacecraft designed to carry up to eight people, and WhiteKnightTwo, a carrier aircraft that launches SpaceShipTwo from a high altitude.

SpaceShipTwo is powered by a hybrid rocket motor, combining elements of solid and liquid propulsion. It uses a solid fuel source and a liquid oxidizer for its operation. WhiteKnightTwo, on the other hand, is an impressive all-carbon composite aircraft, powered by four efficient Pratt & Whitney engines.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo recently achieved an altitude of 82.68 kilometers, surpassing the boundary defined by the US military and NASA for the edge of space. While it didn’t reach the Karman Line at 100 kilometers, the flight marked an important milestone for the company, with payloads from NASA onboard, making it their first revenue-generating flight.

In the past, Virgin Galactic faced a tragic incident during a test flight in 2014 when SpaceShipTwo disintegrated, resulting in the loss of one pilot’s life and injury to the other. The subsequent investigation identified a combination of human error and inadequate safety procedures as the cause of the accident.

Despite the setbacks, Virgin Galactic continues to push the boundaries of commercial human spaceflight. With each successful test flight and milestone reached, the company moves closer to making space tourism a reality for adventurous individuals seeking a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The advancements made by Virgin Galactic not only have the potential to revolutionize space travel but also inspire future generations to explore and push the boundaries of what is possible in the realm of human space exploration.

Virgin Galactic’s small satellite launch system

Virgin Galactic’s small satellite launch system is comprised of two components: a modified Boeing 747 jet called Cosmic Girl and a satellite-launching rocket known as LauncherOne. Cosmic Girl carries LauncherOne beneath its left wing and releases it at an altitude of around 35,000 feet. LauncherOne then initiates its rocket-powered flight to orbit.

The aim of this system is to provide affordable and reliable access to space, offering launches of up to 400kg to a sun-synchronous orbit for less than $10 million. The advantage of using Cosmic Girl is its ability to fly above the troposphere, making it capable of avoiding bad weather conditions. Once released, LauncherOne’s main stage engine, named “NewtonThree,” ignites and fires for approximately three minutes.

Following stage separation, the upper stage engine, called “NewtonFour,” takes over with a 5,000 lbf thrust. It carries the satellite(s) into orbit, executing multiple burns totaling nearly six minutes. Both the NewtonThree and NewtonFour engines are highly reliable liquid rocket engines developed and built by Virgin Galactic. After deploying the customer’s satellite(s), both stages of LauncherOne are safely deorbited, while Cosmic Girl returns to a predetermined airport for quick preparation for its next flight.

The rise of cubesats and microsatellites in recent years has highlighted the need for low-cost small satellite launch vehicles. These vehicles enable commercial satellite start-ups, universities, schools, and even crowdfunding campaigns to conduct various missions, ranging from space exploration to improving life on Earth, in a cost-effective manner.

Virgin Galactic’s small satellite launch system aims to address this demand by offering an accessible and efficient solution for deploying small satellites into orbit. By leveraging the capabilities of Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne, the company is contributing to the growth and advancement of the small satellite industry, unlocking new possibilities for space-based applications and research.

Europe’s IXV Space plane

Europe’s Space Rider is a spaceplane being developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) based on the successful Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV). The qualification flight of Space Rider is planned for 2021, followed by multiple demonstration missions before transitioning the program to industry. By 2025, Space Rider aims to operate commercially, offering the capability to fly science payloads and return them to Earth at a cost of approximately $40,000 per kilogram.

With a length of 4-5 meters, Space Rider will be about half the size of the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B unmanned orbital spaceplane. It is designed to orbit 400 kilometers above the Earth for several months during operational flights, exposing experiments to the space environment by opening its payload bay doors.

The development of Space Rider will build upon the technology and success of the IXV. The IXV, a wingless spacecraft with a lifting body design, completed a suborbital re-entry test in 2015, flying around the world before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean for recovery. The upcoming Space Rider test flight, planned for 2020, will launch on Arianespace’s Vega-C rocket and land on a runway in the Azores islands.

Following the initial mission in 2020, Space Rider is scheduled for five more missions spaced six to 12 months apart. A decision will be made regarding the number of Space Rider vehicles to be built for commercial operations, with the possibility of operating a fleet of them. During development, a full-scale model of Space Rider will be dropped from an atmospheric balloon or helicopter in 2019 to test its parafoil landing system.

The goals of the IXV and Space Rider include demonstrating affordable reusable vehicles capable of carrying modular payloads for various applications in different orbits, with the ability to land on conventional runways.

The IXV incorporates technologies such as aerothermodynamics, guidance navigation and control (GNC), and thermal protection and hot structures. The spacecraft’s belly is covered in protective heat-resistant panels made of carbon fibers that have been woven into a ceramic matrix. An infrared camera and 300 sensors on the heat shield will map the heat flow on IXV’s belly during re-entry.

Space Rider will serve as an orbital platform to test technologies for future European space transportation and for multiple applications such as future reusable launchers stages (lower and upper), robotic exploration (for example, sample return from mars or asteroid), servicing of orbital infrastructures (for example, international space station), servicing of future generation satellites (for example, in-orbit refuelling or disposal), microgravity experiments (for example, optimum time/cost ratio), earth sciences (for example, high-altitude atmospheric research), earth observation (for example, crisis monitoring).

Overall, Space Rider represents an important development in Europe’s space capabilities, aiming to provide affordable and versatile access to space for a range of scientific and commercial applications.

 

Reaction Engines fully reusable, single-stage to orbit, unmanned spaceplane

UK-based company Reaction Engines is developing SKYLON, a fully reusable, single-stage to orbit, unmanned spaceplane. SKYLON incorporates the Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE), enabling it to transition from air-breathing to rocket propulsion at an altitude of 80,000 feet. SABRE is a hydrogen-powered engine that utilizes the Earth’s atmosphere for oxygen, allowing the vehicle to achieve hypersonic speeds before switching to onboard oxygen for space travel.

The primary applications for SKYLON include satellite launches and cargo transportation to the International Space Station (ISS). It is capable of carrying payloads of up to 12,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit every few days. SABRE technology has the potential for atmospheric operations as well, with the possibility of hypersonic passenger aircraft capable of traveling 20,000 kilometers at Mach 5. However, challenges exist in developing engines that can generate effective thrust at altitudes as high as 25 kilometers, where the compressed air experiences extremely high temperatures.

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has been collaborating with Reaction Engines on SABRE since January 2014, confirming the feasibility of the engine through a study. AFRL’s work on SABRE’s precooler technology, which rapidly cools superheated air, is critical to the engine’s operation. The precooler employs liquid helium cooling and thousands of thin-walled tubes to achieve rapid heat removal. The successful testing of the precooler at flight speeds of Mach 3.3 has been accomplished, with the goal of reaching Mach 5 speeds.

At Mach 5 and an altitude of 20 kilometers, SKYLON ceases air-breathing, closes its inlets, and starts burning liquid oxygen mixed with hydrogen fuel to reach speeds of Mach 25 for Earth orbit insertion. Significant progress has been made in the development of SABRE, including the successful quenching of air at temperatures exceeding 1,000 degrees Celsius in less than 1/20th of a second.

The achievements of the SKYLON and SABRE development teams have garnered recognition and awards. While flight trials of the engine may be several years away, the innovative heat-management technology used in SABRE has potential applications in other fields, such as electric cars, where it could enhance heat exchangers for improved battery performance.

Reaction Engines aims to conduct a full-scale ground test of SABRE by 2020 and unmanned test flights around 2025. The company’s strategy involves first developing the heat exchanger technology before progressing to the SKYLON spaceplane, allowing for incremental progress and attracting investment.

 

China developing hybrid usable space plane

China is making significant strides in the development of a hybrid reusable space plane. In July 2021, the country successfully tested an experimental spacecraft, marking a significant milestone in its journey to becoming a space superpower. The spacecraft is seen as a foundation for the development of reusable hypersonic space plane technology, which will enable China to transport people and payloads to orbit and back to Earth in a more cost-effective and frequent manner.

Unlike traditional one-off spacecraft, the Chinese reusable spacecraft will take off like an aircraft and land at an airport facility, eliminating the need for specialized space launch facilities. The vehicle will combine three different engine technologies: an aviation turbine engine or air-breathing rocket engine for low-speed takeoff, a supersonic combustion ramjet engine for high-speed flight in the upper atmosphere, and a rocket engine to break through Earth’s gravity. This combination of engines will enable the space plane to achieve orbital insertion and return to Earth.

China has outlined a long-term plan to master the key technologies required for the hybrid space plane within three to five years. The goal is to implement the technology for suborbital flight and orbital insertion by 2030. The development of a multipurpose, reusable space plane began in 2018 when China launched a scaled-down model from the Gobi Desert. The ultimate objective is to create a space plane capable of both military and civilian missions, with the ability to penetrate missile defense systems and support satellite network maintenance, as well as provide space tourism opportunities.

China’s efforts in developing a hybrid reusable space plane highlight its ambitions to expand its presence and capabilities in space exploration and utilization. By harnessing advanced engine technologies and adopting a reusable approach, China aims to lower costs, increase launch frequency, and open up new opportunities for space travel and scientific endeavors.

China’s Shenlong space plane

China’s Shenlong space plane is a significant development in the country’s space capabilities, with both military and non-military applications. The Strategic Support Force, which includes the Shenlong, is composed of an Internet Army, an Aerospace Army, and Electronic Warfare Troops, as outlined by military commentator Song Zhongping.

The Shenlong space plane, also known as the Divine Dragon, possesses high speed, maneuverability, and radar-evading stealth features. It has the capability for long-range flight and is designed for various missions, including space-based weapons launches, surveillance, intelligence gathering, and early-warning operations.

The PLA’s emphasis on the Shenlong space plane in its Strategic Support Force highlights China’s growing space warfare capabilities. In addition to the space plane program, China is working on hypersonic glide vehicles, anti-satellite missiles, missile defenses, and other advanced technologies.

China’s space planes are likely to serve both military and non-military purposes, aligning with the PLA’s doctrine of air and space integration and possessing offensive and defensive capabilities. The reusability of space planes makes them attractive for capturing and returning enemy satellites, offering flexibility in performing active or passive military missions.

In May 2023, it was reported that China has successfully completed the second test flight of its reusable autonomous spaceplane called Shenlong, marking a breakthrough for the Chinese space program. The spaceplane spent 276 days in orbit, though specific mission details were not disclosed. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), the spaceplane’s manufacturer, hailed the test as an important milestone in reusable spacecraft technology. During the flight, the spaceplane performed various orbital maneuvers and released a small satellite.

The development of the Shenlong space plane showcases China’s commitment to advancing its space program and expanding its strategic reach.

While China’s progress in space technology is notable, it still lags behind the accomplishments of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) developed by NASA, which has executed six test flights and spent over 900 days in space. China is also working on other reusable spaceplanes and a super-heavy launch system. The country’s advancements in space exploration, including space station technology, lunar and Mars missions, and crewed spaceflight, position it as a rising global player in the space industry.

As China continues to enhance its space capabilities, it is expected to play a more significant role in space exploration, surveillance, and potential military operations in the future.

 

China Sets Sights On Building The Largest Spaceplane In The World

The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) is developing an ambitious project to build the largest spaceplane in the world. This spaceplane aims to carry up to 20 passengers, which would be a record for commercial spaceflight companies. CALT has proposed two prototype designs for the rocket plane, with the first prototype weighing 10 tons and the second prototype weighing 100 tons.

The initial prototype is designed to reach an altitude of 62 miles, officially considered the boundary of space, while the more advanced prototype is intended to go even higher, reaching 81 miles. The rocket plane will utilize vertical takeoff and automatic runway landing capabilities, without the need for ground or onboard intervention. The propulsion system will utilize liquid oxygen and liquid methane as fuels.

According to Han Pengxin, the team leader at CALT, the rocket is expected to be completed within the next two years. Han mentioned that most of the ground tests have already been conducted, and the subsystems of the test vehicle have performed well. However, some experts in the scientific community have expressed skepticism about the feasibility of the project. Roger Launius, a spaceflight expert and former NASA chief historian, raised doubts about the plan to send up to 20 people to an altitude of 100 kilometers without a mother ship or staging. He also found it remarkable that the team believes test flights could be conducted within the next two years.

It is worth noting that CALT is not the only company investing in commercial space travel. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two is another venture that plans to transport passengers to space, although it has a capacity of no more than six individuals at a time. The race to develop advanced spaceplanes and make commercial space travel a reality is intensifying, with various companies striving to push the boundaries of technology and offer new opportunities for space exploration.

Russian Spaceplanes

On November 15, 1988, the Soviet Union’s Buran spaceplane took its inaugural flight, but due to the country’s impending collapse, it would also mark its final mission, leaving the promising spacecraft behind. However, Russia is now focusing on the development of unmanned spaceplanes.

Under the support of the National Technology Initiative’s AeroNet and SpaceNet working groups, NPO Aviation and Space Technologies’ chief designer, Alexander Begak, revealed that Russia is working on a spaceplane known as the “Selena Space Yacht.” This suborbital unmanned spacecraft is designed to take off from regular airfields and transport tourists to near-Earth orbit. With the ability to land like an airplane, it offers flexibility in choosing landing locations.

The Selena Space Yacht is projected to reach a maximum speed of 3.5 mach (2.685 miles per hour) and ascend to a height of 120-140 kilometers before returning to the atmosphere at a speed of 0.85 mach. The spacecraft will have three versions, each equipped with six passenger seats and one pilot seat, even though the pilot will not control the spacecraft. The presence of a pilot is intended to provide reassurance and offer congratulatory messages to passengers upon reentry into the atmosphere.

The estimated cost per person for a flight on the Selena Space Yacht is expected to range from $200,000 to $300,000. Alexander Begak anticipates that the first flights could commence within the next five years. Previously, Begak has showcased other innovative creations, such as the Begalet HYPE, a versatile device capable of flying, traveling by road, and navigating waterways.

In addition to the space tourism-focused Selena Space Yacht, Russia is also involved in the development of the PAK-DA, the country’s first hypersonic stealth bomber. The PAK-DA is designed as a launch platform for long-range nuclear and conventional cruise missiles, as well as various precision-guided munitions. Equipped with a hybrid Turbofan engine, it will have the capability of low-level space flight. The bomber will burn traditional kerosene fuel while flying within the Earth’s atmosphere, and upon entering space, the engine will transition to using methane and oxygen, enabling the PAK-DA to operate without air. The engine model has already undergone testing at Russia’s Military Academy in Serpukhovo, according to General Sergei Karakayev, commander of Russian Strategic Missile Forces.

These developments showcase Russia’s ongoing efforts to advance its spaceplane technology, offering potential advancements in space tourism and military capabilities.

 

Dawn Aerospace aims to launch New Zealand’s 1st space plane

Dawn Aerospace, a New Zealand-based company, has received approval from the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in January 2021 to conduct flights of their Mk-II Aurora space plane. This innovative space plane is designed to launch satellites into space on a frequent basis, with the ability to make multiple flights in a day. What sets this approval apart is that Dawn Aerospace will be able to operate their space plane from a conventional airport, although the specific airport location has not been disclosed.

Traditionally, space vehicles require isolated launch facilities due to airspace restrictions. However, Dawn Aerospace’s achievement of gaining approval to operate from a regular airport marks a significant milestone in the space industry. By demonstrating the capability to operate alongside other commercial flights without disrupting airspace, Dawn Aerospace aims to revolutionize the process of reaching space.

Stefan Powell, the Chief Technical Officer of Dawn Aerospace, emphasized the challenges of spaceflight, which encompass not only the vehicle itself but also the launch infrastructure and regulatory aspects. Powell expressed that the company has made significant progress in transforming the hardware, and this approval represents a crucial step towards achieving rapid, reusable, and sustainable spaceflight.

Placing Dawn Aerospace’s space plane at an airport has the potential to reduce costs and simplify operational procedures. Over a span of 18 months, the company collaborated with the CAA to develop flight procedures and systems that ensure the safe integration of Dawn’s space planes with commercial flights at the chosen airport.

The approval granted to Dawn Aerospace signifies a breakthrough in the space industry by showcasing the possibility of conducting space launches from conventional airports. This achievement paves the way for more accessible and efficient space travel in the future.

 

US Military Spaceplanes

The United States has demonstrated its commitment to developing advanced military spaceplanes to enhance its prompt global strike capabilities. The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review emphasized the importance of such capabilities, enabling the US to effectively engage various types of targets worldwide with improved accuracy upon the President’s order.

Among the notable military spaceplanes is the US Air Force X-37B. This robotic vehicle, resembling NASA’s space shuttle but smaller in size, measures approximately 29 feet long, 9.5 feet tall, and has a wingspan of less than 15 feet. Weighing 11,000 pounds at launch, the X-37B has been deployed vertically using United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida. After completing its mission, the X-37B autonomously lands on a runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The primary objectives of the X-37B include advancing reusable spacecraft technologies for future space endeavors and conducting experiments that can be safely returned to Earth for analysis.

The X-37B has carried various payloads during its missions. For instance, it has deployed the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader (ASETS-II), developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory, to test a thermal management system optimized for the space environment. Additionally, it has carried 10 CubeSats within the National Reconnaissance Office’s Ultra Lightweight Technology and Research Auxiliary Satellite (ULTRASat) program, managed jointly by the NRO and NASA.

Other experiments aboard the X-37B include NASA’s materials science experiment called METIS and an advanced Hall thruster experiment. The Hall thruster is an electric propulsion device that ionizes and accelerates a noble gas like xenon to generate thrust. While it produces lower thrust compared to conventional rocket engines, Hall thrusters offer efficiency for small velocity changes and improved fuel economy over longer periods.

The X-37B’s capabilities extend beyond its experimental payloads. The Secure World Foundation, a space advocacy group, highlights the potential for the X-37B to rendezvous, inspect, and potentially manipulate satellites, whether they are friendly or adversarial, including the ability to retrieve and de-orbit satellites.

Overall, the US military’s investment in spaceplanes like the X-37B demonstrates their commitment to advancing space technologies and enhancing their capabilities in various military operations, including surveillance, experimentation, and potential space-based engagements.

 

DARPA Falcon HTV-2 Experimental Hypersonic Test Vehicle

The DARPA Falcon HTV-2 (Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2) program was initiated in 2003 by the Air Force and DARPA with the goal of developing a hypersonic delivery vehicle capable of reaching any location in the world within an hour. The HTV-2 consisted of a rocket launch system and a hypersonic reentry vehicle called the Common Aero Vehicle (CAV). The CAV could be deployed from a future military space plane and carry multiple submunitions.

The FALCON glider, which made up the HTV-2, was constructed using advanced materials like carbon-carbon, providing protection against the extreme temperatures generated at Mach 20 speeds. A tape-wrap process was utilized to fabricate the vehicle, significantly reducing production costs. This technique reduced the number of parts required, decreased human labor, and lowered the production cost per pound of carbon-carbon by 40 percent.

DARPA conducted two test flights in 2010 and 2011 to gather flight and telemetry data. However, both missions failed after approximately nine minutes of flight out of the intended 30-minute duration. The 2011 test showed that the HTV-2 was able to recover from shockwaves that caused it to roll at Mach 20. However, the vehicle suffered damage to its exterior due to the extreme speed, rendering it unable to continue the flight.

Despite the challenges faced in the test flights, the HTV-2 program provided valuable data and insights into hypersonic flight and materials. DARPA’s efforts aimed to advance the development of hypersonic technologies and enhance the United States’ prompt global strike capabilities.

 

DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program

The DARPA Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program, announced in 2013, aimed to develop a reusable launch vehicle capable of performing rapid and affordable launches into space. The goal was to achieve 10 flights in 10 days, including at least one flight reaching Mach 10.

The XS-1 program aimed to revolutionize space operations and provide a responsive and cost-effective way to launch small satellites. Success will depend upon significant advances in both technical capabilities and ground operations, but would revolutionize the Nation’s ability to recover from a catastrophic loss of military or commercial satellites, upon which the Nation today is critically dependent.

Boeing was selected by DARPA to complete the advanced design work for the XS-1 program. The XS-1 spaceplane was designed to lift satellites weighing up to 3,000 pounds into orbit for $5 million or less. It would launch from the ground, deploy an expendable upper stage module, and land like a traditional airplane, enabling reusability and lower operating costs.

The XS-1 spaceplane was envisioned as a combination of an airplane and a launch vehicle. Its primary objective was to reduce launch costs by a factor of ten and enable on-demand space launches. The program aimed to integrate autonomous technologies, advanced materials, cryogenic tanks, and reliable propulsion to achieve routine aircraft-like operability and cost efficiency.

Other technologies in the XS-1 design include:

  • Advanced, lightweight composite cryogenic propellant tanks to hold liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants
  • Hybrid composite-metallic wings and control surfaces able to withstand the physical stresses of suborbital hypersonic flight and temperatures of more than 2,000o F
  • Automated flight-termination and other technologies for autonomous flight and operations, including some developed by DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program

The XS-1 spaceplane was designed to separate from the upper stage and deploy satellites into low Earth orbit. After completing its mission, the reusable first stage would return to Earth, undergo rapid turnaround, and prepare for the next flight. The program aimed to demonstrate the ability to launch payloads quickly, achieve high flight velocities, and significantly reduce the cost of access to space.

The XS-1 program faced technical challenges and setbacks throughout its development. The Boeing Phantom Express, which was being developed as part of the XS-1 program, utilized an Aerojet Rocketdyne AR-22 engine. Although the engine demonstrated high flight rates in ground tests, Boeing decided to discontinue the development of the spaceplane, effectively ending the XS-1 program.

DARPA’s history includes previous unsuccessful launch vehicle development efforts, such as the RASCAL and FALCON programs. These programs aimed to develop air-launch and small launch systems but were terminated before achieving their goals.

Overall, the XS-1 program sought to create a new paradigm for space operations by developing a reusable spaceplane capable of rapid and affordable launches. Although the program faced challenges and was ultimately discontinued, it contributed to advancements in propulsion systems and autonomous technologies that could be applied in future endeavors.

 

The Way Forward

The development and utilization of space planes for ultrafast space transportation, satellite launches, prompt global strike, and space security represent a remarkable leap forward in our exploration and utilization of outer space. Governments, space agencies, and private companies around the world are investing in the research and development of space plane technologies, paving the way for a future where these vehicles become integral to our daily lives.

As we venture into this new frontier, it is crucial to ensure international collaboration, responsible space traffic management, and adherence to space security protocols. By embracing these principles, we can harness the immense potential of space planes while fostering a safe and secure environment for space activities.

Conclusion

Space planes are poised to revolutionize space transportation, satellite launches, prompt global strike capabilities, and space security. Their ultrafast capabilities, reusability, and global reach offer unprecedented opportunities for intercontinental travel, advanced satellite deployments, enhanced defense strategies, and the safeguarding of space assets. As we embark on this next frontier, let us embrace the potential of space planes and work together to shape a future where space exploration and security go hand in hand, propelling humanity towards new horizons.

 

 

References and Resources also include:

http://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2016-04-07b

http://phys.org/news/2015-12-spaceplanes-reusable-rockets.html

http://www.virgingalactic.com/satellite-launch/l1-operations/

http://atimes.com/2016/01/chinas-shenlong-space-plane-revealed-as-part-of-growing-space-warfare-program-gertz/

http://errymath.blogspot.com/2016/08/hybrid-hypersonic-spaceplane-could.html#.V8xQX5h942w

http://spacenews.com/esa-aims-to-privatize-space-rider-unmanned-spaceplane-by-2025/

https://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/a-spaceplane-update/

https://sputniknews.com/science/201902181072520407-russia-space-yacht-development/

https://spacenews.com/boeing-drops-out-of-darpa-experimental-spaceplane-program/

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210121-spaceplanes-the-return-of-the-reuseable-spacecraft

About Rajesh Uppal

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