The DARPA Launch Challenge aims to demonstrate flexible and responsive launch capabilities in days, not years, for our nation’s defense.
Our nation’s space architecture is built around a limited number of exquisite systems. Typical developments span up to 10 years to build, test, and launch spacecraft.
The three qualified teams will have to do what no one has done to date: launch payloads to orbit on extremely short notice, with no prior knowledge of the payload, destination orbit or launch site, and do it not just once, but twice, in a matter of days.
This year will be an important step in transforming the nation’s efforts in space.
DARPA seeks to accelerate capabilities that are unconstrained to allow for flexibility and resilience, rather than one-of-a-kind, fixed infrastructure as it is today. In early 2020, three teams will compete by rapidly launching a payload into orbit, with minimal notification, from two different launch sites – one just days after the other – for an opportunity to win prizes.
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. Teams participating in the DARPA Launch Challenge are required to obtain FAA licenses for all launch activity conducted under this effort.
Launch 1: In early 2020, teams will receive notice of the first launch site just weeks prior to launch, and exact details on the payload just days before. Teams will receive prizes for successfully delivering payloads to low Earth orbit (LEO) within the launch campaign. Teams must successfully complete Launch 1 to proceed to Launch 2.
Launch 2: Within weeks of completing Launch 1, teams must successfully deliver a second payload to low Earth orbit from a different launch site specified by DARPA. Teams who are successful in Launch 2 will receive an overall Challenge ranking, based on their payload mass delivered to orbit in Launch #1 and the time to deliver a payload to orbit in Launch #2.
Eighteen teams prequalified to participate in the challenge, passing the first hurdle in the milestone process by proposing a viable solution for flexible and responsive launch. To successfully pass the qualification phase, potential teams were required to submit discrete applications to DARPA and the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), and have them accepted by each organization.
Three teams successfully completed all three steps, including receiving acceptance of an FAA license, qualifying to participate in the DARPA Launch Challenge. These three teams were awarded a $400,000 cash prize and advance to Launch 1.
Vector was established in 2016 with the goal of extending access to space and transforming the space economy. Vector’s unique remote/mobile launch platform/technology (TEL) gives complete launch site freedom providing its customers with anywhere, anytime launch services. Vector's team of over 150 people spans across their offices in Huntington Beach and San Jose, California; and Tucson, Arizona.
A rocket team that has currently been in stealth mode has qualified to participate. They have been quietly working to dramatically improve access to space for small spacecraft. They have asked to remain undisclosed for now, but look forward to revealing more about their rocket, team, and capabilities in the period leading up to the DARPA Launch Challenge.
Virgin Orbit, which entered the challenge via its wholly owned subsidiary, VOX Space, provides responsive and affordable launch services for small satellites bound for low Earth orbit. The diverse team is made up of over 500 people.