The space plane, the XS-1, is envisaged for lifting 3,000-pound class spacecraft into low Earth orbit at a lower cost than current launch equipment. The plane would serve as a test-bed for a new generation of hypersonic aircraft.
The work -- with team partners Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic -- comes under a 13-month phase one contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
"Our team is uniquely qualified to meet DARPA's XS-1 operational system goals, having built and transitioned many developmental systems to operational use, including our current work on the world's only commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo," said Doug Young, vice president, missile defense and advanced missions, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.
"We plan to bundle proven technologies into our concept that we developed during related projects for DARPA, NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, giving the government maximum return on those investments."
Northrop Grumman said a key program goal is to develop a system that could fly 10 times in 10 days using a minimal ground crew and infrastructure.
The system would utilize a transporter erector launcher. Minimal infrastructure and ground crew would be required for launch and recovery, and land like a normal aircraft on standard runways.
"Reusable boosters with aircraft-like operations provide a breakthrough in space lift costs for this payload class, enabling new generations of lower cost, innovative and more resilient spacecraft."