Space

DARPA's ALASA space launch system would turn airports into spaceports

The ALASA concept uses an expendable rocket dropped from a conventional aircraft to launch 100-lb payloads into space (Image: DARPA)
The ALASA concept uses an expendable rocket dropped from a conventional aircraft to launch 100-lb payloads into space (Image: DARPA)
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The ALASA concept uses a conventional aircraft as a first stage to launch 100-lb payloads into space (Image: DARPA)
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The ALASA concept uses a conventional aircraft as a first stage to launch 100-lb payloads into space (Image: DARPA)
ALASA can launch on 24 hours' notice (Image: DARPA)
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ALASA can launch on 24 hours' notice (Image: DARPA)
The ALASA concept uses an expendable rocket dropped from a conventional aircraft to launch 100-lb payloads into space (Image: DARPA)
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The ALASA concept uses an expendable rocket dropped from a conventional aircraft to launch 100-lb payloads into space (Image: DARPA)
ALASA second stage firing (Image: DARPA)
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ALASA second stage firing (Image: DARPA)

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.

The ALASA concept uses a conventional aircraft as a first stage to launch 100-lb payloads into space (Image: DARPA)
The ALASA concept uses a conventional aircraft as a first stage to launch 100-lb payloads into space (Image: DARPA)

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.

Source: DARPA

ALASA Concept Video

14 comments
Mike Barnett
So basically, somebody at DARPA read Dale Brown's 'Skymasters' a dozen years ago, and is no trying to implement the idea.
Stephen N Russell
Need to convert exec jets, other to carry rockets into skies for launch, otherwise Minimum cost, awesome idea. radical.
Bob Flint
Nice idea, but the landing gear has to be able to retract and come out again, somehow overlooked in the artistic video.
Fred Lockett
Ummm no. All we need is a guy with a small plane and someday every orbiting sat will be toast.
thangavelu-girardey
Wings and under carriage are still being debated, even as the space shuttle era proved its capabilities. The operational X 37B has wings that allow better cross range, not to mention quick adjustments during final approach. Wings + powered approach is an unbeatable concept. Great idea to be able to land on existing infrastructure around the world.
Bikinfool
Nice concept but 100 lbs is extremely light. Swiss are developing a system to launch from an A300 and a mini shuttle (returnable) on board. They are claiming 551 lbs payload capability.
Bruce Crosby
Wow, that F-15 was contracted in 1932, or are we going to start buying them in 2032?
the.other.will
The Pegasus rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corp. launches satellites into Earth orbit after it is dropped from a conventional aircraft. It's been doing that since 1990. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pegasus_(rocket) The ALASA appears to be a smaller implementation of that existing technology.
Beaugrand_RTMC
"The initial launch price offered was US$6 million, without options or a HAPS (Hydrazine Auxiliary Propulsion System) maneuvering stage. With the enlargement to Pegasus XL, prices increased. At the same time, many improvements were made in the wake of early launch failures, requiring more money. In addition, customers usually purchase additional services, such as extra testing, design and analysis, and launch-site support. A launch package is then approximately US$30 million in total. Some customers also have OSC provide mission hardware, up to a fully functional spacecraft such as a Microstar. Such packages can be much higher in cost." Mass: 18,500 kg (Pegasus), 23,130 kg (Pegasus XL) Length: 16.9 m (Pegasus), 17.6 m (Pegasus XL) Diameter: 1.27 m Wing span: 6.7 m Payload: 443 kg (1.18 m diameter, 2.13 m length) Aimed at reducing costs to US$1 million per launch, its (ALASA) designed to be ready to launch at 24 hours' notice and carry payloads of up to 100-lb (45-kg) into orbit. "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. ~1/8 the payload at 1/30 the cost.
Gadgeteer
For those of you saying this will never work, this was essentially done over 30 years ago, during the anti-satellite program the Air Force was testing before Congress killed it. Back then, the goal was to get a kinetic kill warhead into space to destroy satellites, and initial tests were successful. Now DARPA wants to launch satellites instead of destroying them. Essentially the same technology with the same target altitude. Both ideas even use the F-15 for the launch vehicle since it's one of the few aircraft that can go supersonic almost straight up. And for those trying to be snarky about the landing gear, the F-15 main gear pivot forward, not inward toward the centerline. ALASA isn't much bigger than a standard F-15 center-mounted external fuel tank.
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