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.
To win the top prize, a team must 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.
The Challenge represents 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, a space startup comprising industry veterans will attempt to rapidly launch 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. FAA launch licenses are required for all launch activity conducted under this effort.
Launch 1: In early 2020, the team will receive notice of the first launch site just weeks prior to launch, and exact details on the payload just 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: Within weeks of completing Launch 1, the team must successfully deliver a second payload to low Earth orbit from a different launch site specified by DARPA. If successful, the prize is $10 million.
Eighteen teams prequalified to participate in the Launch 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 launch license application, qualifying to participate in the DARPA Launch Challenge. These three teams were awarded a $400,000 cash prize to advance to Launch 1.
One qualified team remains in the competition, a space startup comprising industry veterans currently operating in stealth mode. Virgin Orbit, which entered the competition via its wholly owned subsidiary, VOX Space, exited the competition in October 2019 to focus on its upcoming commercial launches. A third team, Vector Launch, withdrew from the Challenge in September 2019 following a change in the company’s structure and financial status.
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.
Withdrew September 2019
A rocket team 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 unnamed 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.
Withdrew October 2019