DARPA Prioritizes Responsive Launch

The agency’s Launch Challenge will test the commercial space sector’s ability to send multiple payloads to space on short notice


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) imagines a day when rockets are akin to commercial airliners and sending payloads to low-earth orbit (LEO) is as readily available as booking a transatlantic flight.

To realize that goal, DARPA announced in April a Launch Challenge that incentivizes space providers to focus research and development on fast-paced, responsive launch—that is, repeatedly sending cargo to space on short notice from a variety of locations.

Participating teams will be tasked to launch cargo into LEO with only a few days of notice regarding the launch site and payload requirements, then to repeat the process days later from a different location. Both launches will occur in Q4 2019.

“Today, when we need frequent coverage or different modalities of coverage over an area, we generally rely on aircraft for fast response,” said Todd Master, DARPA’s Launch Challenge program manager. With this challenge, DARPA is focused on, “taking what we currently do with UAVs and ISR aircraft and bringing those capabilities to space.”

On-demand monitoring of particular areas from space is a coveted capability for military operators, first responders, environmental researchers, and others. Additionally, the ability to immediately launch new capabilities speeds up the pace of American space development and better positions the country against rival programs abroad.

DARPA notes the existing government development cycle for the build, test, and launch of a spacecraft runs a minimum of three years, but can sometimes take a decade or more if the project is breaking new ground. The commercial timeline is slightly faster but still hovers at around two years.

DARPA hopes to significantly speed up those turnaround times and to help bolster space resiliency. 

“As we see more threats in the space domain, one potential response to that is having large numbers of systems—trying to move to a less targetable architecture through distribution over lots and lots of platforms,” Master said.

Instead of launching five large satellites, for example, DARPA wants to see capabilities dispersed over dozens, even hundreds of micro-sats. With this approach, if a spacecraft is down or somehow taken out of service by adversaries, the operation can continue on the shoulders of the remaining constellation. A legitimate responsive launch infrastructure would facilitate a culture of small sats in high numbers and ensure replacement vehicles for damaged craft are sent to space as quickly as possible.

“[This] is a big military capability we don’t have today,” Master said.

High-value challenge prizes demonstrate that responsive launch is high on DARPA’s priority list. All teams that participate in the challenge will receive a baseline of $400,000 to put toward their systems, and those who successfully launch the first payload will earn an extra $2 million. The second launch will produce a podium of three winners determined by the cost, accuracy, and speed of their launch operations. First, second, and third place winners will receive $10, $9, and $8 million, respectively.

DARPA hopes to facilitate growth for the budding launch-as-a-service industry—an area the DoD hopes to see flourish, but one that likely won’t be driven by commercial needs in the near-term.

“We see that industry already in its nascent stage,” Master said. “We want to make sure that as [companies] are in the early or middle phase of design when they can still accommodate specific capabilities, we provide our incentive now.”

More than 50 companies attended the challenge’s “Competitors’ Day” May 23, but Master estimates a fraction of those companies will qualify to participate—most are focused on specific niches within the satellite development and launch process and lack the resources to independently send objects to space with such flexibility.

If qualifying teams are successful, though, DARPA will confirm that responsive launch is a plausible reality in the near future and will likely continue providing incentives for companies willing to take risks to meet DoD needs.

As with all emerging technologies, there are some hurdles to jump before responsive launch can become ubiquitous. One is licensing. Anyone hoping to reach space must apply for launch licenses through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—a task that currently binds operations to specific launch sites. Trajectory and payload details are required as well, but aren’t available for the challenge and won’t always be available in real-time situations—thus, a licensing structure suitable for responsive launch does not yet exist. DARPA is working with FAA to reform the licensing process and to coordinate these particular application pieces for challenge participants.

The proliferation of objects in space also raises the question of de-orbit—what will be the protocol when a constellation of 200 satellites is at the end of its life cycle? While hardware in geostationary orbit won’t return to Earth, DARPA is exploring advances in low-orbit servicing, relocation, and devices such as timers set to increase drag and accelerate de-orbit for out-of-service satellites.

While responsive launch isn’t yet ready for prime time, DARPA is eager to hurry the technology’s advancement and to “break the mold of large and slow for national security space.”

Teams planning to apply for the Launch Challenge must submit all qualification materials by December 14, 2018.

Photo Credit: DARPA

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