DARPA taps Boeing to build satellite-launching aircraft

DARPA ALASA satellite launch vehicle

Many satellites may no longer require expensive booster rockets in order to be launched into space if the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is successful in its plan to launch satellites from aircraft.

DARPA recently awarded a contract potentially worth $104 million to Boeing to build and demonstrate a low-cost airborne launching system for small satellites in support of the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program. The announcement was made in a posting on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

The goal of the ALASA program is to develop a significantly cheaper alternative for the routine launching of small satellites, and is aimed at reducing the cost to a third of a conventional satellite launch. A single small satellite payload can cost upwards of $30,000 per pound to launch into space, and often takes up payload space in multi-payload launchers.

The program centers on the use of aircraft-based launches to improve performance, reduce range costs and allow more frequent missions. By using aircraft, satellite launches would no longer require wait times for launch windows, and would also be resilient to hazards associated with fixed launch sites. Additionally, satellites could be launched from any commercial, international runway, reducing preparation times and providing launch point offset – that is, launch direction limits imposed by geography at fixed-base launch facilities would no longer be an issue.

The program seeks to launch 100-pound satellites for less than $1 million total, under the assumption of a total of 36 launches. Boeing will eventually have to demonstrate 12 independent launches of 100 pound payloads into low-Earth-orbit.

To do so, ALASA plans to develop improved thrust vectoring methods, new throttling approaches, new flight controls and mission planning techniques, new motor case materials, a potentially infrastructure-free cryogen production method, hybrid propellant systems, stable propellant formulations, and increased specific impulse propellants. 

Boeing’s contract has a base value of $30.6 million with a first option value of $72 million and a second option value of $2 million, according to the posting. DARPA has requested $55 million in funding for the program in 2015, reports Space News, up from $42 million in 2014.

The program intends to demonstrate a launch by fiscal 2015.

About the Author

Joey Cheng is an editorial fellow with Defense Systems.

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