Last September, DARPA announced that it was digging up NASA's long-abandoned spaceplane project, which last sent a rocket-powered aircraft to the edge of space in the 1960s. The XS-1 (short for eXperimental Spaceplane) will be capable of multiple return flights to space, deploying satellites and the like at least 10 times a year.
The design of the craft is still up for debate, but DARPA is hard at work in its search for a final design. A newly-released timeline for the project shows that DARPA will be doling out design contracts as early as this May. Winning designs will then compete with one another for the honor of having their spaceplane constructed as soon as 2015 and flying test missions two years after that. As for what these designs will look like, DARPA still has the door wide open. As project head Jess Sponable put it just last week:
"We don't care if it's vertical take-off, horizontal land, vertical-vertical, which brings in a lot of the entrepreneurs. We don't care if they air-launch it, air-tow it, whatever."
What Sponable does care about is the spaceplane's functionality. No matter what it looks like, the XS-1 will be capable of reaching near-orbit altitude at hypersonic speeds and launching satellites into orbit. The project will theoretically cut the cost of putting satellites into orbit by millions of dollars per launch, and now it looks like we'll get to see it in action much sooner than we had first thought.