If you've ever dreamed of turning your municipal airport into a satellite launching facility, then DARPA has your number. At this week's 18th Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, DC, Bradford Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office reported on the progress of the agency's Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program, which is designed to launch small satellites into low-Earth orbit using an expendable rocket dropped from a conventional aircraft.
Even after almost 60 years, satellite launches continue to face bottlenecks. They require large rocket boosters that launch from a few locations, and are expensive even when sent as piggyback payloads. Similar in configuration to the 1980s' ASM-135 ASAT system, ALASA consists of a cheap, expendable launcher that uses an aircraft as a reusable first stage. Aimed at reducing costs to US$1 million per launch, its designed to be ready to launch at 24 hours' notice and carry payloads of up to 100-lb (45-kg) into orbit.
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According to Tousley, ALASA has completed Phase 1 of the project, which saw the development of three designs for the launcher, the creation of mission planning software, space-based telemetry, and an automatic flight termination system. These will continue to be developed in Phase 2, for which Boeing has been chosen as prime contractor.
During Phase 2, a launch vehicle will be made of advanced composites housing commercial-grade avionics. This will use a liquid monopropellant combining the fuel and oxidizer in one tank, which allows for simpler designs, and cheaper manufacturing and operations. This will culminate with 12 orbital test launches of the prototype system with a demonstration flight slated for late this year and the first orbital launch in 2016.
"We’ve made good progress so far toward ALASA’s ambitious goal of propelling 100-pound satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) within 24 hours of call-up, all for less than $1 million per launch,” says Tousley. "We’re moving ahead with rigorous testing of new technologies that we hope one day could enable revolutionary satellite launch systems that provide more affordable, routine and reliable access to space.”
The animation below illustrates the ALASA concept in action.