The world is starting to get a better idea of what the U.S. military's proposed new space plane might look like.
This week, aerospace firm Northrop Grumman released artwork depicting its conception of the XS-1 space plane, which it's designing under a $3.9 million contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Northrop Grumman is one of three companies competing for the right to build the unmanned XS-1, which is short for "Experimental Spaceplane." The other two are Boeing and Masten Space Systems, both of which also won yearlong "Phase 1" initial design contracts in July.
DARPA wants the XS-1 to make spaceflight much more routine and affordable. The reusable vehicle should be able to fly 10 times in a 10-day span and launch 3,000- to 5,000-lb. (1,361 to 2,268 kilograms) payloads to orbit for less than $5 million per flight, officials have said.
XS-1 will probably feature a reusable first stage and one or more expendable upper stages. The first stage will fly to suborbital space at hypersonic speeds, then return to Earth to be used again; the upper stages will deploy payloads to orbit.