Today, there’s one way to get a satellite into space: launch it from the ground on a booster rocket, which is expensive and can take weeks or months between missions to prepare the launch pad. Plus, a change in weather can scrap the launch at the last minute. DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program seeks to reduce cost, time and weather constraints for launching small satellites from an aircraft.
“Current small satellite payloads can cost up to $30,000 per pound to launch, which is unsustainable over the long haul. Even when our increasingly capable small satellites are launched, they are obliged to go to orbits selected by the primary payload on current launchers, rather than to the orbits their designers and operators would prefer,” said Mitchell Burnside Clapp, DARPA program manager. “Through this program we’d like to see the cost per flight drop to less than $1 million dollars, including the range support costs, for 100-pound payloads, and to be able to launch each of those satellites into a dedicated orbit.”
The vision is for an aircraft to carry the small satellite and its host-booster either inside the aircraft or externally. At the desired altitude and direction the aircraft releases the satellite and booster, which continue their climb into space. A key benefit of such a system is responsiveness to an immediate need. Within a day of being called up, a satellite launch mission could be conducted from a runway anywhere in the world. Another advantage is the flexibility of an aircraft to deliver a satellite into any desired orbit at any time.
Innovative technologies and techniques required for the ALASA program may include propellant systems, possible in-flight liquid oxygen production, motor case materials, flight controls, nozzle designs, thrust vectoring, throttling, mission planning techniques and airspace clearance procedures. All interested proposers, particularly those with unique solutions in the above technical areas, are encouraged to respond to the Broad Agency Announcement by Dec. 20, 2011. View the announcement here: http://go.usa.gov/IrN.