And you thought space launches couldn't get any cooler: The next generation of small satellites may blast into orbit from the belly of a fighter jet.
The United States military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) gave Boeing a $30.6 million contract last month to develop a 24-foot (7.3-meter) launch vehicle that would attach to the bottom of an F-15E Strike Eagle.
The concept calls for the jet to drop this vehicle when it reaches an altitude of 40,000 feet (12,192 meters), at which point the craft's rocket engines would kick on, carrying onboard satellites into orbit.
This launch system could slash the cost of launching small satellites — those weighing up to 100 pounds (45 kilograms) — by 66 percent if all goes well, Boeing officials said.
The fighter-jet system would not only be a cheaper approach than the usual throwaway rocket stages, officials added, but also would be a quicker way to send satellites into orbit. The United States military would not need to wait around for a launch vehicle to be available or a launch window to open.
"We developed a cost-effective design by moving the engines forward on the launch vehicle," Steve Johnston, Boeing's director of advanced space exploration, said in a statement. "With our design, the first and second stages are powered by the same engines, reducing weight and complexity."
DARPA also wants to reduce the cost of access to space for much bigger payloads. The agency's Experimental Spaceplane project, or XS-1, aims to develop a vehicle capable of launching 3,000- to 5,000-lb (1,361 to 2,268 kg) payloads to orbit for less than $5 million per flight.
Get the Space.com Newsletter
Breaking space news, the latest updates on rocket launches, skywatching events and more!
Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace