A spaceplane is a vehicle that can fly/glide like an aircraft in Earth's atmosphere and maneuver like a spacecraft in outer space. To do so, spaceplanes must incorporate features of both aircraft and spacecraft, occupying an intermediate space between the two. Orbital spaceplanes are more like spacecraft, while sub-orbital spaceplanes are more like fixed-wing aircraft. All spaceplanes to date have been rocket-powered but then landed as unpowered gliders.
Three types of spaceplane have successfully launched to orbit, reentered Earth's atmosphere, and landed: the Space Shuttle, Buran, and the X-37. Another, Dream Chaser, is under development. As of 2019 all past, current, and planned orbital vehicles launch vertically on a separate rocket. Orbital spaceflight takes place at high velocities, with orbital kinetic energies typically at least 50 times greater than suborbital trajectories. Consequently, heavy heat shielding is required during reentry as this kinetic energy is shed in the form of heat. Many more spaceplanes have been proposed, but none have reached flight status.
At least three suborbital rocket-powered aircraft have been launched horizontally into sub-orbital spaceflight from an airborne carrier aircraft before rocketing beyond the Kármán line: the X-15, SpaceShipOne, and SpaceShipTwo.
Spaceplanes must operate in space, like traditional spacecraft, but also must be capable of atmospheric flight, like an aircraft. These requirements drive up the complexity, risk, dry mass, and cost of spaceplane designs. The following sections will draw heavily on the US Space Shuttle as the biggest, deadliest, most complex, most expensive, most flown, and only crewed orbital spaceplane, but other designs have been successfully flown.
The flight trajectory required to reach orbit results in significant aerodynamic loads, vibrations, and accelerations, all of which have to be withstood by the vehicle structure.
If the launch vehicle suffers a catastrophic malfunction, a conventional capsule spacecraft is propelled to safety by a launch escape system. The Space Shuttle was far too big and heavy for this approach to be viable, resulting in a number of abort modes that may or may not have been survivable. In any case, the Challenger disaster demonstrated that the Space Shuttle lacked survivability on ascent.
Once on-orbit, a spaceplane must be supplied with power by solar panels and batteries or fuel cells, maneuvered in space, kept in thermal equilibrium, oriented, and communicated with. On-orbit thermal and radiological environments impose additional stresses. This is in addition to accomplishing the task the spaceplane was launched to complete, such as satellite deployment or science experiments.
The Space Shuttle used dedicated engines to accomplish orbital maneuvers. These engines used toxic hypergolic propellants that required special handling precautions. Various gases, including helium for pressurization and nitrogen for life support, were stored under high pressure in composite overwrapped pressure vessels.
Orbital spacecraft reentering the Earth's atmosphere must shed significant velocity, resulting in extreme heating. For example, the Space Shuttle thermal protection system (TPS) protects the orbiter's interior structure from surface temperatures that reach as high as 1,650 °C (3,000 °F), well above the melting point of steel. Suborbital spaceplanes fly lower energy trajectories that do not put as much stress on the spacecraft thermal protection system.
The Space Shuttle Columbia disaster was the direct result of a TPS failure.
An air-breathing orbital spaceplane would have to fly what is known as a 'depressed trajectory,' which places the vehicle in the high-altitude hypersonic flight regime of the atmosphere for an extended period of time. This environment induces high dynamic pressure, high temperature, and high heat flow loads particularly upon the leading edge surfaces of the spaceplane, requiring exterior surfaces to be constructed from advanced materials and/or use active cooling.
The Space Shuttle was a crewed partially reusable low Earth orbital spacecraft system operated by NASA as part of the Space Shuttle program. Its official program name was Space Transportation System (STS), taken from a 1969 plan for a system of reusable spacecraft of which it was the only item funded for development. The first of four crewed orbital test flights occurred in 1981, leading to operational flights beginning in 1982. In addition to the prototype whose completion was cancelled, five complete Shuttle systems were built and used on a total of 135 missions from 1981 to 2011, launched from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. The Shuttle fleet's total mission time was 1322 days, 19 hours, 21 minutes and 23 seconds.
Shuttle components included the Orbiter Vehicle (OV) with three clustered RS-25 main engines, a pair of recoverable solid rocket boosters (SRBs), and the expendable external tank (ET) containing liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The Space Shuttle was launched vertically, like a conventional rocket, with the two SRBs operating in parallel with the OV's three main engines, which were fueled from the ET. The SRBs were jettisoned before the vehicle reached orbit, and the ET was jettisoned just before orbit insertion, which used the orbiter's two Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines. At the conclusion of the mission, the orbiter fired its OMS to de-orbit and re-enter the atmosphere. The orbiter then glided to a runway landing, usually to the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center, Florida or Rogers Dry Lake in Edwards Air Force Base, California. After landing at Edwards, the orbiter was flown back to the KSC on the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, a specially modified Boeing 747.
Buran was a Soviet reusable spacecraft project that began in 1974 at the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute in Moscow and was formally suspended in 1993. In addition to being the designation for the whole Soviet/Russian reusable spacecraft project, Buran was also the name given to Orbiter K1, which completed one uncrewed spaceflight in 1988 and was the only Soviet reusable spacecraft to be launched into space. The Buran-class orbiters used the expendable Energia rocket as a launch vehicle. They are generally treated as a Soviet equivalent of the United States' Space Shuttle, but in the Buran project, only the airplane-shaped orbiter itself was theoretically reusable. While Orbiter K1 was recovered successfully after its first orbital flight in 1988, it was never reused.
The Buran program was started by the Soviet Union as a response to the United States Space Shuttle program. The project was the largest and the most expensive in the history of Soviet space exploration. Development work included sending BOR-5 test vehicles on multiple sub-orbital test flights, and atmospheric flights of the OK-GLI aerodynamic prototype. Buran completed one uncrewed orbital spaceflight in 1988 before its cancellation in 1993. Orbiter K1, which flew the test flight in 1988 was crushed in a hangar collapse on 12 May 2002 in Kazakhstan. The OK-GLI resides in Technikmuseum Speyer. Although Buran was similar in appearance to NASA's Space Shuttle orbiter and similarly re-entered as a spaceplane, its internal and functional design was distinct. For example, the main engines during launch were on the Energia rocket and were not taken into orbit by the spacecraft. Smaller rocket engines on the craft's body provided propulsion in orbit and de-orbital burns.
The Boeing X-37, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), is a reusable robotic spacecraft. It is boosted into space by a launch vehicle, then re-enters Earth's atmosphere and lands as a spaceplane. The X-37 is operated by the United States Space Force for orbital spaceflight missions intended to demonstrate reusable space technologies. It is a 120%-scaled derivative of the earlier Boeing X-40.
The X-37 began as a NASA project in 1999, before being transferred to the U.S. Department of Defense in 2004. It is capable of long duration flights for classified purposes, likely including materials testing. The X-37 launches atop an Atlas V 501 or SpaceX Falcon 9.
In December 2010, Sierra Nevada Corporation made a commercial proposal to NASA to develop the lifting-body Dream Chaser in response to NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) solicitation. The vehicle would be launched on a human-rated Atlas V rocket but would land on a runway. In September 2014, the spaceplane was not retained into the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) stage of development, with contracts instead being awarded to SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's Starliner spacecraft.
In January 2016, a cargo variant of Dream Chaser was selected for a Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract. In August 2019, Sierra Nevada announced that they would no longer be launching Dream Chaser on the Atlas V, instead being the "commercial debut" payload for United Launch Alliance's new Vulcan rocket. This debut is scheduled to occur in late 2021.
Three piloted suborbital rocket powered aircraft have reached space: the North American X-15, SpaceShipOne, and SpaceShipTwo. All these crafts were not capable of entering orbit and were first lifted to high altitude by a carrier aircraft.
On 7 December 2009, Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic unveiled SpaceShipTwo, along with its atmospheric mothership "Eve". On 13 December 2018 SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity successfully crossed the boundary of space.
The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-105 was an atmospheric prototype of an intended orbital spaceplane, with the suborbital BOR-4 subscale heat shield test vehicle successfully reentering the atmosphere before program cancellation.
Various types of spaceplanes have been suggested since the early twentieth century. Notable early designs include a spaceplane equipped with wings made of combustible alloys that it would burn during its ascent, and the Silbervogel bomber concept. World War II Germany and the postwar US considered winged versions of the V-2 rocket, and in the 1950s and '60s winged rocket designs inspired science fiction artists, filmmakers, and the general public.
The U.S. Air Force invested some effort in a paper study of a variety of spaceplane projects under their Aerospaceplane efforts of the late 1950s, but later reduced the scope of the project. The result, the Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar, was to have been the first orbital spaceplane, but was canceled in the early 1960s in lieu of NASA's Project Gemini and the U.S. Air Force's crewed spaceflight program.
In 1961, NASA originally planned to have the Gemini spacecraft land on a runway with a Rogallo wing airfoil, rather than an ocean landing under parachutes. The test vehicle became known as the Paraglider Research Vehicle. Development work on both parachutes and the paraglider began in 1963. By December 1963, the parachute was ready to undergo full-scale deployment testing, while the paraglider had run into technical difficulties. Though attempts to revive the paraglider concept persisted within NASA and North American Aviation, in 1964 development was definitively discontinued due to the expense of overcoming the technical hurdles.
The Space Shuttle underwent many variations during its conceptual design phase. Some early concepts are illustrated.
The Rockwell X-30 National Aero-Space Plane (NASP), begun in the 1980s, was an attempt to build a scramjet vehicle capable of operating like an aircraft and achieving orbit like the shuttle. Introduced to the public in 1986, the concept was intended to reach Mach 25, enabling flights between Dulles Airport to Tokyo in two hours, while also being capable of low Earth orbit. Six critical technologies were identified, three relating to the propulsion system, which would consist of a hydrogen-fueled scramjet.
The NASP program became the Hypersonic Systems Technology Program (HySTP) in late 1994. HySTP was designed to transfer the accomplishments made in hypersonic flight into a technology development program. On 27 January 1995 the Air Force terminated participation in (HySTP).
In 1994, a USAF captain proposed an F-16 sized single stage to orbit peroxide/kerosene spaceplane called "Black Horse". It was to take off almost empty and undergo aerial refueling before rocketing to orbit.
The Lockheed Martin X-33 was a 1/3 scale prototype made as part of an attempt by NASA to build a SSTO hydrogen-fuelled spaceplane VentureStar that failed when the hydrogen tank design could not be constructed as intended.
On 5 March 2006, Aviation Week & Space Technology published a story purporting to be the "outing" of a highly classified U.S. military two-stage-to-orbit spaceplane system with the code name Blackstar.
In 2011, Boeing proposed the X-37C, a 165 to 180 percent scale X-37B built to carry up to six passengers to low-Earth orbit. The spaceplane was also intended to carry cargo, with both upmass and downmass capacity.
The Soviet Union first considered a preliminary design of rocket-launch small spaceplane Lapotok in early 1960s. The Spiral airspace system with small orbital spaceplane and rocket as second stage was developed in the 1960s–1980s. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-105 was a crewed test vehicle to explore low-speed handling and landing.
In the early 2000s the orbital 'cosmoplane' (Russian: космоплан) was proposed by Russia's Institute of Applied Mechanics as a passenger transport. According to researchers, it could take about 20 minutes to fly from Moscow to Paris, using hydrogen and oxygen-fueled engines.
The Multi-Unit Space Transport And Recovery Device (MUSTARD) was a concept explored by the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) around 1968 for launching payloads weighing as much as 2,300 kg (5,000 lb) into orbit. It was never constructed. The British Government also began development of a SSTO-spaceplane, called HOTOL, but the project was canceled due to technical and financial issues.
The British company Bristol Spaceplanes has undertaken design and prototyping of three potential spaceplanes since its founding by David Ashford in 1991. The European Space Agency has endorsed these designs on several occasions.
In the 1980s, West Germany funded design work on the MBB Sänger II with the Hypersonic Technology Program. Development continued on MBB/Deutsche Aerospace Sänger II/HORUS until the late 1980s when it was canceled. Germany went on to participate in the Ariane rocket, Columbus space station and Hermes spaceplane of ESA, Spacelab of ESA-NASA and Deutschland missions (non-U.S. funded Space Shuttle flights with Spacelab). The Sänger II had predicted cost savings of up to 30 percent over expendable rockets.
Hopper was one of several proposals for a European reusable launch vehicle (RLV) planned to cheaply ferry satellites into orbit by 2015. One of those was 'Phoenix', a German project which is a one-seventh scale model of the Hopper concept vehicle. The suborbital Hopper was a Future European Space Transportation Investigations Programme system study design A test project, the Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV), has demonstrated lifting reentry technologies and will be extended under the PRIDE programme.
HOPE was a Japanese experimental spaceplane project designed by a partnership between NASDA and NAL (both now part of JAXA), started in the 1980s. It was positioned for most of its lifetime as one of the main Japanese contributions to the International Space Station, the other being the Japanese Experiment Module. The project was eventually cancelled in 2003, by which point test flights of a sub-scale testbed had flown successfully.
AVATAR (Aerobic Vehicle for Hypersonic Aerospace Transportation; Sanskrit: अवतार) was a concept study for an uncrewed single-stage reusable spaceplane capable of horizontal takeoff and landing, presented to India's Defence Research and Development Organisation. The mission concept was for low cost military and commercial satellite launches. No further studies or development have taken place since 2001.
A private, United Kingdom-based project initiated by the lead HOTOL engineer, Skylon is a single stage to orbit vehicle with a precooled jet engine called SABRE. This vehicle is intended to be capable of carrying a 15,000 kg (33,000 lb) payload into low Earth orbit.
A test project, the Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV), has demonstrated lifting reentry technologies and will be extended under the PRIDE programme. The FAST20XX Future High-Altitude High Speed Transport 20XX aims to establish sound technological foundations for the introduction of advanced concepts in suborbital high-speed transportation with air-launch-to-orbit ALPHA vehicle.
As of 2016[update], the Indian Space Research Organisation is developing a launch system named the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV). It is India's first step towards realizing a two-stage-to-orbit reusable launch system. A space plane serves as the second stage. The plane is expected to have air-breathing scramjet engines as well as rocket engines. Tests with miniature spaceplanes and a working scramjet have been conducted by ISRO in 2016.
Shenlong (Chinese: 神龙; pinyin: shén lóng; lit.: 'divine dragon') is a proposed Chinese robotic spaceplane that is similar to the Boeing X-37. Only a few images have been released since late 2007.
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