Masten Space Systems selected by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for XS-1 Program

Mojave, CA (July 23, 2014) — Masten Space Systems, Inc. (Masten) announced today that the company has been awarded a contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as part of Phase 1 of the Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program to develop a reusable launch vehicle. Over the last decade, Masten has built three highly operable, vertical takeoff/vertical landing, reusable rockets which are flown by small teams of five to seven people. Masten’s experience with vertical takeoff/vertical landing rockets has shown that the company’s flight vehicles can offer greater flexibility than reusable launch vehicles that require runways to land. Masten has logged well over 300 flights to date with its Xoie, Xombie and Xaero reusable rockets.

The goals of the XS-1 program include designing and building a rocket capable of flying 10 times in 10 days, lifting payloads greater than 3,000 pounds to low Earth orbit, and dramatically lowering the cost of launch. Masten’s team intends to utilize the first year of the XS-1 program to demonstrate critical technologies and refine the preliminary design of its “Xephyr” launch vehicle.

Phase 1 of the XS-1 program is scheduled to last 13 months, with vehicle construction and flight demonstration envisioned for subsequent phases. In Phase 2, DARPA plans to select one of its XS-1 partners to build its launch vehicle for eventual transition to future commercial or military operations.

“XS-1 comes at the right time for the industry and the right time for Masten,” said Masten CEO Sean Mahoney. “The tide is turning and space access is opening up. We’re thrilled to lead a team to tackle the hard problems DARPA has put in front of us.”

Company founder and CTO David Masten said, “It’s time. Our team is ready. We’ve been working towards this for years. XS-1 is a great program to join with our vertical landing technology.”

“The vision here is to break the cycle of escalating space system costs and enable routine space access and hypersonic vehicles,” said Dennis Poulos, Masten’s XS-1 program manager. “The XS-1 program represents a return to the bold aerospace projects of decades past, when engineers from various government agencies came together to push the spaceflight envelope.”

XS-1 Press Release Image



The mission of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is to make the pivotal early technology investments that create or prevent decisive surprise for U.S. national security. By investing in new technology-driven ideas for next-generation capabilities, DARPA creates options for a better, more secure future. Since its establishment in 1958 as part of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), DARPA has demonstrated time and again how thinking well beyond the borders of what is deemed possible can yield extraordinary results.


Masten Space Systems designs, builds and operates reusable vertical takeoff and landing rockets to help lower the barriers to space access. With over 300 flights successfully completed since May 2009, Masten continues to push the boundaries of reusable launch vehicle development and autonomous precision landing. Built on the foundation of reusability and small operations teams, the XPRIZE-winning company offers rockets-as-a-service for Entry Descent and Landing development, sub-orbital, and orbital flights.


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Astrobotic Technology And Masten Space Systems Perform Visually Guided Precision Landing


John Thornton

Sean Mahoney


Groundbreaking effort integrates two privately developed technology platforms to validate performance of autonomous precision landing capability

Mojave, CA: Astrobotic Technology and Masten Space Systems announced today that the Astrobotic Autolanding System (AAS) successfully directed the Xombie vertical-takeoff vertical-landing suborbital rocket in a closed-loop test on June 20, 2014. In this technology demonstration, a computer vision system scanned the landscape, selected a landing spot, and directed a rocket-powered lander to a safe touchdown point, all without a human operator. The flight test was funded by the Flight Opportunities Program of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and conducted at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, CA.

The combined AAS/XA-0.1-B system landing in the hazard field at Mojave. Credit: Masten Space Systems, Inc.

Future NASA and commercial missions will likely target destinations with challenging topography and limited communication, such as unmapped asteroids, surface rendezvous sites for sample return, and terrain features like polar peaks, crater rims, and skylights on Mars and the Moon. The Astrobotic Autolanding System (AAS) autonomously selects a landing location for a robotic spacecraft to safely land at a precise location, a capability that is critical for landing in such hazardous terrain.

Unlike typical drone landings, which rely on GPS, the AAS uses a technique called Terrain Relative Navigation to precisely track the spacecraft’s location and attitude using only cameras and an inertial measurement unit (IMU). This is necessary in environments where GPS is not available, like the Moon. The AAS then uses LIDAR to detect hazards and select a landing point. “Conceptually, this is like the Apollo missions where the astronauts navigated to a safe landing by looking out the window of the LEM,” said Kevin Peterson, Astrobotic’s CTO. “In this case, we have an onboard computer instead of an astronaut, and the cameras, IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit), and software are so precise that they can track the craft’s location to within a few meters.”

Developing navigation and hazard avoidance for a self-landing, rocket-powered spacecraft on Earth is challenging, due to the need to test in the same operating conditions that the system would encounter in a planetary landing. Astrobotic and Masten collaborated on a framework that enabled the test flight without prior knowledge of exactly where the rocket would choose to land. Astrobotic’s AAS scanned the landscape and selected a safe landing point. Masten’s onboard flight system received input from the Astrobotic vision and navigation system, validated the input, and accepted the selection of a path to the touchdown point. The flexible architecture enables flight testing while simultaneously limiting risk to vehicle, payload, and people. The successful flight was the capstone of only a few months of work together.

This is a representation of hazard detection during the landing test. The red shaded regions represent hazardous terrain. The green regions represent safe landing areas detected during flight. Credit: Astrobotic Technology, Inc.

Masten’s CEO Sean Mahoney said, “Today was a great demonstration of how a rocket powered lander can select a safe landing site without human intervention. There are so many innovations on display in this flight campaign from both teams that it really drives home the reality that barriers to space access are falling.”

This successful closed-loop flight was an end-to-end validation of the Astrobotic Autolanding System’s precision landing capability in a relevant flight environment. The development focus will now shift to implementing the AAS with space-rated sensors and avionics in order to land Astrobotic’s Griffin lander safely on the Moon.

Masten’s terrestrial rocket testbed next takes to flight later this year in support of future rocket landing technologies, while the company continues to build the next generation of vertical take off/vertical landing vehicles.

About Astrobotic
Astrobotic makes high-capability space missions practical for a broad spectrum of business, scientific, and commercial applications. With its partner Carnegie Mellon University, Astrobotic is pursuing the Google Lunar XPRIZE. Astrobotic was founded in 2008 and is headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA.

About Masten Space Systems
Masten Space Systems designs, builds and operates reusable vertical takeoff and landing rockets to help lower the barriers to space access. With over 300 flights successfully completed since May 2009, Masten continues to push the boundaries of reusable launch vehicle development. Built on the foundation of reusability and small operations teams, the XPRIZE winning company offers rockets-as-a-service for Entry Descent and Landing development, suborbital, and orbital flights.