Airborne 'stealth launch' of CubeSat said to be underway

DARPA ALASA cubesat launch

An illustration of a military CubeSat being launched from F-15E.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Air Force reportedly have commenced test flights designed to quickly launch small, inexpensive satellites.

The website AmericaSpace.com reported this week that flights would soon commence—or may have already—to launch military CubeSats from F-15E fighter jets under a program called Small Air Launch Vehicle to Orbit (SALVO). The program, which is designed to launch a single CubeSat, is thought to be a technology demonstrator for a more ambitious program called Airborne Launch Assist Space Access, or ALASA.

The website also reported that SALVO payloads may have already been launched from Cape Canaveral to counter Chinese and Russian electronic and infrared surveillance. It also suggested that the technologies would give the U.S. a "stealth launch" capability.

DARPA highlighted ALASA and other low-cost launch options late last year. ALASA would leverage a reusable first stage to launch 100-pound satellites into low-Earth orbit for about $1 million, a total that includes integration and range costs. The research agency has also initiated a space plane effort designated XS-1.

Below is a DARPA's concept video for ALASA.

Pamela Melroy, a former astronaut and space shuttle commander who joined DARPA in 2013, said in December 2013 the agency was planning a series of ALASA tests in 2015 and 2016, adding that "We're working to line up our payloads now."

The programs reflect a shift away from large, expensive and vulnerable payloads as antisatellite threats grow

DARPA awarded Boeing a contract last year to design and develop the ALASA concept.

"We’ve made good progress so far toward ALASA’s ambitious goal of propelling 100-pound satellites into low Earth orbit within 24 hours of call-up, all for less than $1 million per launch," Bradford Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, told a recent commercial space conference.

"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."

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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