DARPA moves closer to inexpensive jet-launched satellite system

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) this week said it was into phase 2 development of an aircraft-based satellite launch platform that could quickly and inexpensively launch for 100 lbs. payloads into Low Earth Orbit.

The satellite deployment system is being developed under DARPA's Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program which has as a goal to design an aircraft satellite launch system that improves performance, reduces range costs and enables more frequent missions, all of which combine to reduce prices. The ability to relocate and launch quickly from virtually any major runway around the world substantially reduces the time needed to launch a mission. Launching from an aircraft permits essentially any orbit direction to be achieved without concerns for launch direction limits imposed by geography at fixed-base launch facilities, DARPA said.

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“We’ve made good progress so far toward ALASA’s ambitious goal of propelling 100-pound satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) within 24 hours of call-up, all for less than $1 million per launch. We’re moving ahead with rigorous testing of new technologies that we hope one day could enable revolutionary satellite launch systems that provide more affordable, routine and reliable access to space,” Bradford Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, told an audience at the 18th Annual Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, D.C.

According to Tousley, because reducing cost per flight to $1 million presents such a challenge, DARPA is attacking the cost equation on multiple fronts. The Phase 2 design, which will be spearheaded by Boeing, incorporates commercial-grade avionics and advanced composite structures. Perhaps the most daring technology ALASA seeks to implement is a new high-energy monopropellant, which aims to combine fuel and oxidizer into a single liquid. If successful, the monopropellant would enable simpler designs and reduced manufacturing and operation costs compared to traditional designs that use two liquids, such as liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

ALASA also aims to reduce infrastructure costs by using runways instead of fixed vertical launch sites, automating operations and avoiding unnecessary services.

DARPA said that launches of satellites for the Department of Defense or other government agencies require scheduling years in advance for the few available slots at the nation's limited number of launch locations. This slow, expensive process is causing a bottleneck in placing essential space assets in orbit. The current ALASA design envisions launching a low-cost, expendable launch vehicle from conventional aircraft. Serving as a reusable first stage, the plane would fly to high altitude and release the launch vehicle, which would carry the payload to the desired location.

Pending successful testing of the new monopropellant, the program plan includes 12 orbital launches to test the integrated ALASA prototype system, the agency stated.   Currently, DARPA plans to conduct the first ALASA flight demonstration test in late 2015 and the first orbital launch tests in the first half of 2016. Depending on test results, the program would conduct up to 11 further demonstration launches through summer 2016.

DARPA isn’t the only group that is looking to bring down the cost of satellite launches. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic groups recently said it is looking to air-launch a rocket that could deliver 500lb satellites to LEO for under $10 million.

Branson told CNBC:"We believe this is a very efficient way of getting satellites into space," he said. "It's much more efficient than the big rockets of the past. We can literally take off every three or four hours." Branson said the initial investment for the first batch of satellites will hover around $2 billion. "We can still be very competitive on prices, as far as the end-user is concerned," he said.

Branson in January said he wants to launch as many as 2,400 small satellites in an effort to set up a constellation capable of bringing broadband communications through a company called OneWeb to millions of people who do not have it. He said he plans to initially launch a low-earth-orbit satellite constellation of 648 satellites to get the project rolling.

Sounds like he might want to talk to DARPA.

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