DARPA wants to use jets to put satellites in orbit

Putting a satellite in orbit, even a very small one, is an expensive and time consuming business. The cost of sending things to space is about $10 thousand per pound. Additionally, small satellites are sent as secondary cargo on other flights. This means that the owner of the satellite has to wait for something more important, such as a NASA spacecraft or International Space Station resupply mission before they can put their satellite in orbit.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) thinks they have found a way around all of this. The Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program aims to get small satellites into orbit on short notice and for less money using Jets as launch vehicles.

Bradford Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office recently provided an update on ALASA’s progress at the 18th Annual Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, D.C.

According to Tousley ALASA is through the design phase and has selected Boeing as the primary contractor for the testing of the prototype system.

“We’ve made good progress so far toward ALASA’s ambitious goal of propelling 100-pound satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) within 24 hours of call-up, all for less than $1 million per launch. 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,” said Tousley in a statement.

Currently, government agencies must schedule launches years in advance. This process is causing a backlog of satellites waiting for launch. The ALASA approach envisions a low-cost launch vehicle which can take off from conventional aircraft. These aircraft would serve as the reusable stage one ‘rockets’, releasing the second stage at high altitudes.

“ALASA seeks to overcome the limitations of current launch systems by streamlining design and manufacturing and leveraging the flexibility and re-usability of an air-launched system. We envision an alternative to ride-sharing for satellites that enables satellite owners to launch payloads from any location into orbits of their choosing, on schedules of their choosing, on a launch vehicle designed specifically for small payloads,” said Mitchell Burnside Clapp, DARPA program manager for ALASA.

ALASA’s design phase resulted in three viable systems for the launch. The implementation phase is proving a bit more difficult. DARPA is still trying to reduce the $1 million per flight cost, which still equates to $10,000 per pound for a 100 pound satellite.

DARPA is not alone in its goal of attempting to reduce the cost of sending cargo, and eventually humans, into space. It is one of the primary goals of SpaceX. The company is currently attempting to reduce costs by creating re-usable stage 1 vehicles.

“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space,” said company CEO Elon Musk.

NASA has also stated that reducing the costs of sending cargo to space is one of its top priorities.

“NASA’s goal is to reduce the cost of getting to space to hundreds of dollars per pound within 25 years and tens of dollars per pound within 40 years,” according to NASA’s website.

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