The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Pentagon's research arm, has completed the first phase of a new space launch program that aims to reduce the cost of sending small satellites into space and is now moving into the testing phase.
Speaking at the 18th Annual Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)'s Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington D.C. on Thursday, DARPA Tactical Technology Office director Bradford Tousley announced that its Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) has finished designing a new system that aims to propel 100-pound satellites into low Earth orbit for less than $1 million per launch. Tousley said DARPA chose Boeing as the prime contractor for the program's second phase, which consists of 12 test launches of ALASA's prototype system.
ALASA seeks to expedite space launches and bring down its costs by piggybacking on conventional aircraft for launching small satellites into space. Instead of using the limited number of vertical launch sites in the country, ALASA uses a jet that takes off on a typical runway before the payload separates from the plane and moves into orbit.
With Phase 1 now complete, ALASA is now a little closer to its goal with the creation of mission planning software, space-based telemetry for monitoring the ALASA vehicle, and automatic flight termination systems.
Phase 2 involves testing of the prototype ALASA vehicle, which is composed of commercial-grade avionics placed inside advanced composite structures. The vehicle will use a new monopropellant that combines fuel and oxidizer into a single liquid that, if successful, would pave the way for lower manufacturing costs than vehicles that use liquid oxygen and hydrogen.
"ALASA seeks to overcome the limitations of current launch systems by streamlining design and manufacturing and leveraging the flexibility and reusability of an air-launched system," says ALASA program manager Mitchell Burnside Clapp. "We envision an alternative to ride-sharing for satellites that enables satellite owners to launch payloads from any location into orbits of their choosing, on schedules of their choosing, on a launch vehicle designed specifically for small payloads."
Large satellites weighing tens of thousands of pounds can cost up to $1 billion to launch and keep in orbit, says Leon McKinney, president of McKinney Associates, an aerospace modeling and analysis firm. Smaller satellites weighing 100 pounds or less cost much less, but still command a sizable sum of around $50 million to launch and place in low Earth orbit. If ALASA proves to be successful, it could enable a new satellite launch system that Tousley says will be "more affordable, routine, and reliable."
DARPA is not the only one with this end goal in mind. Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is also testing reusable rocket technology that Musk says will reduce the cost of space access by a factor of a hundred.
"A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before," says Musk. "That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space."
DARPA will conduct the first flight demonstration test in late 2015 followed by the first orbital launch test early next year. Depending on the results of the first two tests, 11 other demo launches will follow in 2016.