New DARPA Challenge Seeks Flexible and Responsive Launch Solutions

Credit: DARPA

More than $10 million in prize money for the first place team that successfully launches to low Earth orbit within days’ notice; completes a second launch from a different site days later

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (DARPA PR) — Today, DARPA announced the DARPA Launch Challenge, designed to promote rapid access to space within days, not years. Our nation’s space architecture is currently built around a limited number of exquisite systems with development times of up to 10 years. With the launch challenge, DARPA plans to accelerate capabilities and further incentivize industry to deliver launch solutions that are both flexible and responsive.

“Current launch systems and payload development were created in an era when each space launch was a national event,” said Todd Master, the DARPA Launch Challenge program manager for DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “We want to demonstrate the ability to launch payloads to orbit on extremely short notice, with no prior knowledge of the payload, destination orbit, or launch site. The launch environment of tomorrow will more closely resemble that of airline operations—with frequent launches from a myriad of locations worldwide.”

The commercial small-launch (10kg-1000kg) industry has embraced advances in manufacturing, micro-technologies, and autonomous launch/range infrastructure. DARPA seeks to leverage this expertise to transform space system development for the nation’s defense. Frequent, flexible, and responsive launch is key to this transformation.

In late 2019, qualified teams will compete for prizes, with a top prize of $10 million. Teams will receive exact details on the payload in the days before each of the two launch events, with only a few weeks’ notice about the location of the first launch site. Once they successfully deliver their payload to low Earth orbit (LEO), competing teams will get details of the second launch site. Teams again will have just days to successfully deliver a second payload to LEO, for a chance at a prize. Final ranking for the top three prizes will depend on speed, payload, mass, and orbit accuracy.

DARPA is coordinating closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is responsible for granting licenses for commercial space launches and will be involved throughout the challenge. Competitors participating in the DARPA Launch Challenge are required to obtain FAA licenses for all launch activity conducted under this effort.

A competitors’ day with representatives from DARPA and the FAA will be held in Los Angeles May 23, 2018. To register to attend or for additional guidelines on how to participate in the challenge, please visit www.darpalaunchchallenge.org.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    From what I saw on the darpa wep page it looks like Vector and Rocket Labs or a similar enterprise could just have a stock of say 3 boosters ready to ship and go. I’m surprised ULA has not lobbied for the government to pay for a Atlas and/or Delta to be held in reserve for a responsive space launch. That’s at least more reasonable than being paid to ‘be there’ as has happened in the past.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    Armadillo had a nice launch support truck and trailer for their landers but it was nothing close to what will be needed for an orbital vehicle that can be launched with only a couple of days notice. The licensing will certainly need to be streamlined and fast tracked. The FAA usually has a fairly long time in which they are required respond to launch applications.

    Paul Allen spent a rumored $26 million to fund Space Ship One and that system could have been very flexible when it comes to locations by its very design. They also only won $10 million which Mr Allen left with Scaled Composites to distribute amongst the team. Many years down the road $10 million doesn’t buy what it used to, nor even $26 million. Any teams that sign up are going to need a sugar daddy to make it to the finals. Is it worth it?

    Mission planning isn’t something that can be done after lunch on a Friday. It would look very bad if a payload were launched right into the path of another asset already in place. Depending on the launch will take place, the site and surrounding area needs to be secured. This could mean coordinating with other agencies such as the Coast Guard and publishing notices so that fisherman and others know to stay out of the safety zone.

    Lastly, fuel and oxidizer needs to be arranged with the vendor. A small company isn’t going to have the funds to have a tanker full of liquid Oxygen ready to roll to any destination at a moments notice the way a major defense contractor can. It’s also a perishable item. A cryogenic fuel also isn’t something that is kept on hand in large quantities.

    It will be interesting to see the full text of the rules to find out if sites and missions are completely random or if there will be a list of possible sites and flight profiles that could be assigned.

    I can see what DARPA is aiming for but, it’s been wisely said that the first battle in any war is the one to cut through all of the red tape. Launching rockets seems to be 8/10ths red tape much of the time.