Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
Arlington, VA, United States (4E) – The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is offering a top prize of $10 million for a team that successfully launches to low Earth orbit (LEO) within days’ notice and completes a second launch from a different site days later.
The prize money is part of the “DARPA Launch Challenge,” which is designed to promote rapid access to space within days, not years, as is the current norm with most launch vehicles other than those operated by SpaceX. DARPA noted that the United States’ 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 galvanize industry into delivering flexible and responsive launch solutions.
“Current launch systems and payload development were created in an era when each space launch was a national event,” said Todd Master, DARPA Launch Challenge program manager. “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.”
DARPA noted that the commercial small-launch (10 kg to 1,000 kg) industry has embraced advances in manufacturing, micro-technologies and autonomous launch/range infrastructure. It seeks to leverage this expertise to transform space system development for the country’s defense. It said “frequent, flexible, and responsive launch” is key to this transformation.
Qualified teams will compete for prizes in 2019, 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. They will only be given a few weeks’ notice about the location of the first launch site.
Once they successfully deliver their payload to 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.
Competitors participating in the DARPA Launch Challenge are required to obtain FAA licenses for all launch activity conducted under this effort. 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.
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