Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., awarded a $30.7 million contract to Boeing on Friday for advanced stages of the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program.
The DARPA ALASA project seeks capability to launch a 100-pound satellite from conventional aircraft for a total cost of less than $1 million, which is about one-third of today's satellite launch costs.
DARPA awarded the first ALASA research contracts in the first half of 2012. At that time Boeing was one of five ALASA contractors when the company won a $4.5 million phase-one ALASA award.
For the contract awarded Friday, Boeing researchers will continue the work they pursued in the ALASA phase-one program, which was to analyze affordable, aircraft-based satellite launch platforms that quickly can deploy small satellites or payloads as heavy as 100 pounds into any orbit.
Other phase-one ALASA contractors were Space Information Laboratories LLC in Santa Maria, Calif., which won a $1.9 million contract; Ventions LLC in San Francisco, which won a $969,396 contract; Northrop Grumman Corp. in El Segundo, Calif., which won a $2.3 million contract; and Lockheed Martin Corp. in Palmdale, Calif., which won a $6.2 million contract. Virgin Galactic in Las Cruces, N.M., also reportedly is working on the ALASA program.
The ALASA project will support small satellite programs such as the Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) program, which DARPA is pursuing in efforts to launch constellations of temporary and inexpensive orbiting satellites quickly enough to support fast-moving military operations.
The goal of ALASA is to develop a significantly less expensive approach for launching small satellites routinely with at least a threefold reduction in costs compared to current military and U.S. commercial launch costs, DARPA officials say.
Small satellite payloads today cost more than $30,000 per pound to launch. ALASA seeks to launch 100-pound satellites for less than $10,000 per pound, or $1 million total, including range support costs.
Challenges the ALASA program poses include developing alternatives to current range processes, controlling weight and margin under a hard gross weight limit, creating a low-cost launch vehicle compatible with an existing aircraft, and developing a concept of operations.
ALASA will demonstrate a launch system that works without extensive maintenance, preparation, or inspection before launch to enable a one-day interval between call-up and launch, a rapid mission planning demonstration that selects intended orbits after takeoff of the launch-assist aircraft, and showing the ability for rapid departure from a threatened airfield to execute a launch mission from a remote site.
On its most recent ALASA contract, Boeing will do the work in Huntington Beach, Calif.; Redondo Beach, Calif.; Santa Maria, Calif.; Bothell, Wash.; Simsbury, Conn.; Titusville, Fla.; Joplin, Mo.; and Ontario, Calif., and should be finished by February 2015.