DARPA Awards 6 Small Airborne Launch Vehicle Contracts

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By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

DARPA has awarded six contracts for its Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program, which is designed to produce a rocket capable of launching a 100-pound satellite into low Earth orbit for less than $1 million. Winners include Virgin Galactic, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrup Grumman.

According to Avionics Intelligence and Aviation WeekDARPA awarded the following contracts:

Launch System Design and Development Concepts

  • Lockheed Martin Corp., Palmdale, Calif.: $6.2 million
  • Boeing, Huntington Beach, Calif., $4.5 million
  • Virgin Galactic, Las Cruces, N.M.

Enabling Technologies

  • Northrup Grumman, El Segundo, Calif., $2.3 million
  • Space Information Laboratories LLC, Santa Maria, Calif., $1.9 million
  • Ventions LLC, San Francisco, Calif., $969,396

Mitchell Burnside Clapp, DARPA’s ALASA program manager, provided additional details in an interview with Aviation Week:

The launch platform is to be a “fundamentally unmodified” aircraft. “We do not want an aircraft dedicated to the mission. That is key to the affordability of Alasa,” he says. Apart from software, Darpa’s goal is that the aircraft “does not have any modifications preventing it from performing its primary mission.”

Boeing declines to detail its initial “point of departure” system concept, but Lockheed Martin says its design “uses a tactical aircraft to provide a high energy-state, reusable first stage, enabling launches from bases worldwide.” Lockheed’s team includes Alliant Techsystems Operations and Defense Propulsion System.

“All three have different approaches to the basic problem,” says Burnside Clapp, indicating that Virgin Galatic’s Alasa concept is “what you might expect” given the company’s plan to air-launch the SpaceShip2 suborbital passenger vehicle from the WhiteKnight2 carrier aircraft.

Darpa’s goal is not only an air-launch system that can place a 100-lb. satellite in low Earth orbit for $1 million, but one that requires just 24 hr. from call-up to integrate and launch the payload , with the ability to replan the launch in flight and relocate the aircraft to a different airport on short notice. The aircraft must be able to operate from civil as well as military airfields, anywhere in the world, in a crisis.

In a press release, Boeing stressed its broad expertise in both launch systems and aircraft.

“We will apply experience from across Boeing in aircraft and launch system development and operation, as well as our proven rapid prototyping skills, to offer an innovative analysis to support this important DARPA mission,” said Steve Johnston, director of Advanced Space Exploration for Boeing Phantom Works. “ALASA will expand our knowledge of launch system solutions that can be integrated into existing operational aircraft with minimal modifications.”

Space Information Laboratories will be providing three key enabling technologies that could be used in multiple launch systems, including “GPS Metric Track, Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS) and Space Based Range to reduce range launch cost.”

SIL’s VBITS patented technology will enable DARPA’s ALASA goal to significantly reduce launch cost with Vehicle Based GPS Tracking, Autonomous Flight Termination and Space Based Range Systems. SIL’s pioneering technology will lead the way to bring DOD cost affordability on Aerospace vehicles and ranges.

“We are extremely proud to play a significant role as a DARPA team member with SIL’s VBITS enabling technology to support DARPA’s ALASA goal to launch a 100 pound satellite into LEO for $1 million total cost per launch” said Edmund Burke, Space Information Laboratories, CEO.