Phantom Express: The Spaceplane That Never Was

Even for those of us who follow space news closely, there’s a lot to keep track of these days. Private companies are competing to develop new human-rated spacecraft and assembling satellite mega-constellations, while NASA is working towards a return the Moon and the first flight of the SLS. Between new announcements, updates to existing missions, and literal rocket launches, things are happening on a nearly daily basis. It’s fair to say we haven’t seen this level of activity since the Space Race of the 1960s.

With so much going on, it’s no surprise that not many people have heard of the XS-1 Phantom Express. A project by the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the XS-1 was designed to be a reusable launch system that could put small payloads into orbit on short notice. Once its mission was complete, the vehicle was to return to the launch site and be ready for re-flight in as a little as 24 hours.

Alternately referred to as the “DARPA Experimental Spaceplane”, the vehicle was envisioned as being roughly the size of a business jet and capable of carrying a payload of up to 2,300 kilograms (5,000 pounds). It would take off vertically under rocket power and then glide back to Earth at the end of the mission to make a conventional runway landing. At $5 million per flight, its operating costs would be comparable with even the most aggressively priced commercial launch providers; but with the added bonus of not having to involve a third party in military and reconnaissance missions which would almost certainly be classified in nature.

Or at least, that was the idea. Flight tests were originally scheduled to begin this year, but earlier this year prime contractor Boeing abruptly dropped out of the program. Despite six years in development and over $140 million in funding awarded by DARPA, it’s now all but certain that the XS-1 Phantom Express will never get off the ground. Which is a shame, as even in a market full of innovative launch vehicles, this unique spacecraft offered some compelling advantages.

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The Spitzer Space Telescope Ends Its Incredible Journey

Today, after 16 years of exemplary service, NASA will officially deactivate the Spitzer Space Telescope. Operating for over a decade beyond its designed service lifetime, the infrared observatory worked in tandem with the Hubble Space Telescope to reveal previously hidden details of known cosmic objects and helped expand our understanding of the universe. In later years, despite never being designed for the task, it became an invaluable tool in the study of planets outside our own solar system.

While there’s been no cataclysmic failure aboard the spacecraft, currently more than 260 million kilometers away from Earth, the years have certainly taken their toll on Spitzer. The craft’s various technical issues, combined with its ever-increasing distance, has made its continued operation cumbersome. Rather than running it to the point of outright failure, ground controllers have decided to quit while they still have the option to command the vehicle to go into hibernation mode. At its distance from the Earth there’s no danger of it becoming “space junk” in the traditional sense, but a rogue spacecraft transmitting randomly in deep space could become a nuisance for future observations.

From mapping weather patterns on a planet 190 light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major to providing the first images of Saturn’s largest ring, it’s difficult to overstate the breadth of Spitzer’s discoveries. But these accomplishments are all the more impressive when you consider the mission’s storied history, from its tumultuous conception to the unique technical challenges of long-duration spaceflight.

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Why Spacecraft Of The Future Will Be Extruded

It’s been fifty years since man first landed on the Moon, but despite all the incredible advancements in technology since Armstrong made that iconic first small step, we’ve yet to reach any farther into deep space than we did during the Apollo program. The giant leap that many assumed would naturally follow the Moon landing, such as a manned flyby of Venus, never came. We’ve been stuck in low Earth orbit (LEO) ever since, with a return to deep space perpetually promised to be just a few years away.

Falcon Heavy Payload Fairing

But why? The short answer is, of course, that space travel is monstrously expensive. It’s also dangerous and complex, but those issues pale in comparison to the mind-boggling bill that would be incurred by any nation that dares to send humans more than a few hundred kilometers above the surface of the Earth. If we’re going to have any chance of getting off this rock, the cost of putting a kilogram into orbit needs to get dramatically cheaper.

Luckily, we’re finally starting to see some positive development on that front. Commercial launch providers are currently slashing the cost of putting a payload into space. In its heyday, the Space Shuttle could carry 27,500 kg (60,600 lb) to LEO, at a cost of approximately $500 million per launch. Today, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy can put 63,800 kg (140,700 lb) into the same orbit for less than $100 million. It’s still not pocket change, but you wouldn’t be completely out of line to call it revolutionary, either.

Unfortunately there’s a catch. The rockets being produced by SpaceX and other commercial companies are relatively small. The Falcon Heavy might be able to lift more than twice the mass as the Space Shuttle, but it has considerably less internal volume. That wouldn’t be a problem if we were trying to hurl lead blocks into space, but any spacecraft designed for human occupants will by necessity be fairly large and contain a considerable amount of empty space. As an example, the largest module of the International Space Station would be too long to physically fit inside the Falcon Heavy fairing, and yet it had a mass of only 15,900 kg (35,100 lb) at liftoff.

To maximize the capabilities of volume constrained boosters, there needs to be a paradigm shift in how we approach the design and construction of crewed spacecraft. Especially ones intended for long-duration missions. As it so happens, exciting research is being conducted to do exactly that. Rather than sending an assembled spacecraft into orbit, the hope is that we can eventually just send the raw materials and print it in space.

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An Evening With Space Shuttle Atlantis

When I got the call asking if I’d be willing to fly down to Kennedy Space Center and cover an event, I agreed immediately. Then about a week later, I remembered to call back and ask what I was supposed to be doing. Not that it mattered, I’d gladly write a few thousand words about the National Crocheting Championships if they started holding them at KSC. I hadn’t been there in years, since before the Space Shuttle program had ended, and I was eager to see the exhibit created for the fourth member of the Shuttle fleet, Atlantis.

So you can imagine my reaction when I learned that the event Hackaday wanted me to cover, the Cornell Cup Finals, would culminate in a private viewing of the Atlantis exhibit after normal park hours. After which, the winners of the competition would be announced during a dinner held under the orbiter itself. It promised to be a memorable evening for the students, a well deserved reward for the incredible work they put in during the competition.

Thinking back on it now, the organizers of the Cornell Cup and the staff at Kennedy Space Center should truly be commended. It was an incredible night, and everyone I spoke to felt humbled by the unique experience. There was a real, palpable, energy about it that you simply can’t manufacture. Of course, nobody sitting under Atlantis that night was more excited than the students. Though I may have come in as a close second.

I’ll admit it was somewhat bittersweet to see such an incredible piece of engineering turned into a museum piece; it looked as if Atlantis could blast off for another mission at any moment. But there’s no denying that the exhibit does a fantastic job of celebrating the history and accomplishments of the Space Shuttle program. NASA officially considers the surviving Shuttle orbiters to be on a “Mission of Inspiration”, so rather than being mothballed in a hangar somewhere in the desert, they are out on display where the public can get up close and personal with one of humanities greatest achievements. Judging by the response I saw, the mission is going quite well indeed.

If you have the means to do so, you should absolutely make the trip to Cape Canaveral to see Atlantis and all the other fascinating pieces of space history housed at KSC. There’s absolutely no substitute for seeing the real thing, but if you can’t quite make the trip to Florida, hopefully this account courtesy of your humble scribe will serve to give you a taste of what the exhibit has to offer.

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A Daring Search For Answers In Soyuz Mystery

If you happened to tune into NASA TV on December 11th, you’d have been treated to a sight perhaps best described as “unprecedented”: Russian cosmonauts roughly cutting away the thermal insulation of a docked Soyuz spacecraft with a knife and makeshift pair of shears. Working in a cloud of material ripped loose during the highly unusual procedure, cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Prokopyev were effectively carving out their own unique place in space history. Their mission was to investigate the external side of the suspicious hole in the Soyuz MS-09 capsule which caused a loss of air pressure on the International Space Station earlier in the year.

That astronauts don’t generally climb out the hatch and use a knife to hack away at the outside of their spacecraft probably goes without saying. Such an event has never happened before, and while nobody can predict the future, odds are it’s not something we’re likely to see again. Keep in mind that this wasn’t some test capsule or a derelict, but a vehicle slated to return three human occupants to Earth in a matter of days. Cutting open a spacecraft in which human lives will shortly be entrusted is not a risk taken likely, and shows how truly desperate the Russian space agency Roscosmos is to find out just who or what put a hole in the side of one of their spacecraft.

Close inspection from the inside of the spacecraft confirmed the hole wasn’t made by an impact with a micrometeorite or tiny piece of space junk as was originally assumed. It appears to have been made with a drill, which really only allows for two possible scenarios: intentional sabotage or a mistake and subsequent cover-up. In either event, a truly heinous crime has been committed and those responsible must be found. As luck would have it the slow leak of air pressure was detected early and the hole was patched before any damage was done, but what if it hadn’t?

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If You Are Planning On Building Your Own Space Shuttle…

One of the most complicated machines ever built was the US space shuttle (technically, the STS or Space Transportation System). Despite the title, we doubt anyone is going to duplicate it. However, one of the most interesting things about the shuttle’s avionics — the electronics that operate the machine — is that being a government project there is a ridiculous amount of material available about how it works. NASA has a page that gathers up a description of the vehicle’s avionics. If you are more interested in the actual rocket science, just back up a few levels.

We will warn you, though, that if you’ve never worked on space hardware, some of the design choices will seem strange. There are two reasons for that. First, the environment is very strange. You have to deal with high acceleration, shock, vibration, and radiation, among other things. The other reason is that the amount of time between design and deployment is so long due to testing and just plain red tape that you will almost certainly be deploying with technology that is nearly out of date if not obsolete.

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