Hybrid Air-Rocket Concept Touted For Rapid Launch
Northrop Grumman is addressing U.S. Air Force requirements for responsive space access by developing a rapid-turnaround launch system that combines a reusable first stage with expendable upper stages. Launched vertically, the hybrid launch vehicle's winged first stage boosts the upper stages to speeds approaching Mach 7 before releasing them at an altitude of approximately 150,000 feet. The first stage then flies back to its home based like an unmanned aerial vehicle. Image
Credit: Northrop Grumman Corp.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado - A rapid-turnaround launch system capable of hurling satellites or special purpose payloads into Earth orbit in as little as 48 hours is being touted by a major aerospace firm--Northrop Grumman Corporation.

The new concept is being competed in a U.S. Air Force effort to develop quick launch of space hardware.

Northrop Grumman's idea is dubbed the Hybrid Launch Vehicle (HLV), dedicated to reducing launch costs by approximately two-thirds compared to the cost of using a medium evolved expendable launch vehicle.

In a statement released today here at the National Space Symposium, Northrop Grumman officials said the idea combines a reusable, airplane-like first stage with throw-away upper stages. Launched vertically, the vehicle's winged first stage boosts the upper stages to speeds approaching seven times the speed of sound (Mach 7) before releasing them at an altitude of approximately 150,000 feet.

The upper stages then boost the satellite payload to orbit or deliver a conventional weapon to a distant target, according to the press statement. Meanwhile, the first stage flies back and lands at its home base like an autonomous, unmanned aircraft. The first stage of the HLV will use a rocket engine during the boost portion of its mission, and an integrated set of air-breathing jet engines for its return flight.

Subscale demonstrator

Northrop Grumman said it is defining the architecture for an operational version of this hybrid launch system under a 20-month, $3.0 million studies and analysis contract with the Air Force's Space & Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles Air Force Base.

The contract includes a base amount of $1.5 million over 14 months, with an option for an additional $1.5 million over an additional six months.

Under the contract, the company will also define a concept for a subscale demonstrator version of the launch system, and the infrastructure required to execute a demonstration program. The subscale launch system, if developed, would be used to demonstrate the technologies, processes and key attributes of an operational system.

The current studies and analysis contract is the first step in a process that could lead ultimately to the selection of two contractor teams to develop preliminary designs for the HLV.

At the end of the design competition, the Air Force may select a single contractor team to develop and produce the HLV - Subscale Demonstration system, the Northrop Grumman statement pointed out.

"The HLV concept offers the Defense Department a relatively simple, affordable way to put standardized, tactical satellites into orbit quickly after receiving a request for support," explains Dennis Poulos, Northrop Grumman's HLV project manager.