why:

Today, space launch is a process that begins years in advance, and it relies on a limited number of launch ranges that have complex, expensive, and one-of-a-kind, fixed infrastructure. The DARPA Launch Challenge is stressing the time, technology, systems, and processes that currently constrain access to space. The Challenge aims to minimize launch infrastructure, improve responsiveness, and take advantage of advances in commercial launch cadence to demonstrate flexible launch capabilities in days rather than years, for our nation’s defense.

The Challenge:

2 Launches, 2 Locations, both with different payloads and different trajectories -- all within days’ notice

Launch 1 (Launch Window February 17-March 1): The Team received notice of the first launch location just weeks prior to launch, and exact details on the payload 30 days before. The Team will receive a prize for successfully delivering the payload to low Earth orbit (LEO) within the launch campaign. A successful Launch 1 will earn a $2 million prize and is a prerequisite for attempting Launch 2.

Launch 2 (Launch Window in March 2020): Within days of completing Launch 1, the Team must successfully deliver a second payload to LEO from a different launch location. If successful, the prize is $10 million.

The US government will provide independent verification of successful orbit insertion and orbit determination, and if feasible detection of payload deployment and orbit determination of payloads within 24 hours after launch. DARPA is also utilizing services of a third-party company, LeoLabs, to provide similar post launch supplemental data.

How:

The DARPA Launch Challenge is asking teams to do what no one has done before: launch payloads on extremely short notice, with no prior knowledge of the payloads, destination orbit or launch site and do it not just once, but twice, in a matter of days. To qualify, the Team had to receive an FAA commercial launch license to meet the safety requirements. The team received details of the first payload 30 days before transporting their rocket to the launch site, where they must complete a series of safety checkouts before the launch.

Who: Teams & Partners

DARPA:

For more than 60 years, DARPA has held to a singular and enduring mission: to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security. Since 2004, DARPA has consistently used prized-based Challenges to develop innovative solutions to some of the most difficult national security problems. High-profile competitions, challenges, and prize incentives have been effective at motivating innovators from around the world to expand the boundaries of human performance and technology. The DARPA Launch Challenge is the most recent Challenge in a series of efforts to bring transformative change in space that has been elusive in traditional R&D efforts.

FAA:

DARPA is coordinating closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is responsible for granting licenses for commercial space launches. FAA has been involved throughout the Challenge and will be on-site throughout the launch demonstrations. FAA licenses are required for all launch activity conducted under this effort.

TEAMS:

Of the 50+ teams that submitted applications to participate in the challenge, 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 Launch Challenge. Due to the difficulty of the challenge, only one team remains in the competition: Astra.

The Team: Astra was incorporated in October 2016 and is located in Alameda, California, just east of San Francisco. Astra’s leadership team includes industry and government space veterans Chris Kemp (CEO), Dr. Adam London (CTO), and Chris Thompson (VP, Engineering). Astra currently employees 160 engineers, scientists, technicians, and staff. Focusing on low-cost fabrication techniques and a software-driven approach to manufacturing, the company’s objective is to achieve daily space deliveries of small satellites without rideshare brokering and with minimal launch infrastructure.

Where: Launch Ranges

Map of possible launch site locations in U.S.

The responsiveness and flexibility of the site supporting agile launch is an integral part of the rapid response environment. The Launch Challenge team considered eight initial commercial and federal launch ranges for vertical and horizontal launch, reviewing variables such as flexible infrastructure, accessibility, and environmental concerns. The final remaining launch range is Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska (PSCA) on Kodiak Island, a launch range owned and operated by the Alaska Aerospace Corporation, a state agency.

Photo of the Pacific Spaceport Complex

Pacific Spaceport Complex - Alaska PSCA is located on Kodiak Island and occupies more than 3,700 acres. As a privately operated range in a sparsely populated area, PSCA offers flexibility in supporting the Launch Challenge objectives to demonstrate flexible, responsive launch. To learn more, please visit PSCA.

What: Launch Vehicles & Payloads

THE VEHICLE:

Illustration of the Astra Rocket

Rocket name: 1 of 3
Dimensions: 11.6 meters (height) X 1.32 meters (diameter)
Features: Fully containerized launch system, ultra-low-cost metallic structure, battery-powered pump-fed LOX-RP-1 engines.

THE PAYLOADS:

Illustration of the P-POD Deployment System
P-POD Illustration

DARPA Launch Challenge seeks to demonstrate “just in time” payload integration as part of the overall goal for rapid and responsive use of space. In contrast with typical launch campaigns where payload data is given to the launch provider months prior, details of the payloads for Launch 1 were shared with the launch team on January 22, 2020 (L-30 days). The Launch 1 payload manifest consists of three CubeSats and one hosted payload. The team will receive the payloads at the launch site, where integration with the rocket can be finalized.

P-POD:

The Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD) is a standard deployment system built by Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. The P-POD can deploy up to three unit CubeSats with a standard dimension of 10cm x 10cm x 10cm. The P-POD consists of a structural aluminum rectangular box that encapsulates the entire payload of CubeSats, a spring ejection mechanism, a door, and a non-explosive release mechanism.

Prometheus:

Prometheus satellites are Department of Defense CubeSats developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory. The Prometheus CubeSat effort is one of a handful of initiatives that seeks to improve the responsiveness of space capabilities by reducing tasking and data dissemination timelines to provide military operators with tactically relevant information.

University of South Florida Articulated Reconnaissance and Communications Expedition – 1 (ARCE-1):

ARCE-1 is a research and technology demonstration mission consisting of two CubeSats, which will fly together in the same orbit and perform inter-satellite networked communications and a high degree of system autonomy. Through ARCE-1, the University of South Florida aims to demonstrate the algorithms and hardware systems necessary to support large constellations of LEO satellites that will intelligently reconfigure around different tasks, gracefully handle faulty and failed satellites, and operate with a minimum of oversight from Earth-based operators.

The Space Object Automated Reporting Systems (SOARS):

SOARS combines space-object beacons; automated, low-cost, ground collection sites; and a central control center which together provide near-real time 24/7 location data to support space situational awareness, space domain awareness and orbital safety activities. The SOARS beacon being launched will enable system performance testing under actual orbital conditions, allowing Tiger Innovations to refine and mature the beacon technology while supporting ground station operations and data integration utilizing real world data.

Payloads manifested on Launch 1 have favorably completed all interagency and flight safety reviews. Details about Launch 2 payloads will be shared with the team 30 days before the launch.

Orbit Verification:

LeoLabs will provide supplemental post launch orbit insertion detection, initial orbit determination and if feasible, detection and orbit determination of payloads following deployment from the launch vehicle upper stage. LeoLabs builds and operates phased array radars using technology developed at Silicon Valley's leading R&D organization, SRI International. These radars provide high resolution data used to create tracking or mapping tools of all objects in low Earth orbit (LEO). Services are provided using the LeoLabs Data Platform including rapid orbit determination, collision avoidance, collision prediction, maneuver detection, and others.

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