Need a satellite in space tomorrow? DARPA wants to be the one you call. The agency released a video Thursday demonstrating how its ALASA program could strap a satellite to the belly of a jet fighter and send it into low Earth orbit within 24 hours of a request.
ALASA, which stands for Airborne Launch Assist Space Access, is intended for smaller satellites (about 100 pounds or less), and would be able to get one into space and sending back signal in a single day. Under the current system, it can take years to schedule a government launch.
The program doesn't require the fixed launch site and heavy manpower of a typical launch. Instead, a launch vehicle is sent down the runway on a jet and flown into the air before separating from the plane and igniting its first stage boosters. That rockets the payload into orbit.
The technology is similar to Orbital's Pegasus rocket, which DARPA helped develop in 1990. ALASA uses a different propulsion system and is meant to carry satellites that have advanced a lot in the last 25 years.
The market is growing for launching cheaper, smaller satellites rather than larger ones that weigh tens of thousands of pounds and must be kept in orbit longer to justify their size and cost, which can reach as high as $1 billion each, said Leon McKinney, president of aerospace modeling and analysis firm McKinney Associates. And while today it might cost in the neighborhood of $50 million to launch a small satellite, DARPA aims to bring that down to $1 million or below.
Private companies, such as Virgin Galactic, are also pursuing methods to get launch costs south of $10 million.
"Small satellites in the ALASA payload class represent the fastest-growing segment of the space launch market, and DARPA expects this growth trend to continue as small satellites become increasingly more capable," Mitchell Burnside Clapp, DARPA's ALASA program manager, said in a press release.
DARPA has chosen Boeing as the prime contractor for the next phase of the program, in which it will conduct 12 test launches of the system prototype.