It seemed like a terrific idea to promote low-cost rapid space launch – set up a contest with substantial prize money and the prospect of future lucrative launch contracts with the US government.
Alas, the contest, run by the US Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA), concluded this week without a winner when the last of three contenders cancelled its planned launch under a minute before launch.
DARPA unveiled its Launch Challenge in April 2018, with the goal of demonstrating responsive and flexible space launch capabilities from the burgeoning industry of small launch providers.
“For nearly 60 years, the nation’s space architecture has been built around exquisite systems that are launched by large, expensive boosters,” it said.
“The development cycle with the systems is tedious, with a process driven by a desire to reduce risk, rather than deliver timely capabilities.
“The DARPA Launch Challenge seeks to demonstrate new and ground breaking capabilities to address emerging Department of Defense needs. The challenge will culminate in two separate launch competitions to low-Earth orbit (LEO) within days of each other at different locations in the United States.”
DARPA originally selected three contenders – Virgin Orbit’s subsidiary Vox Space, small satellite launcher Vector, which went bankrupt in December, plus another firm operating in stealth mode, without its name being officially disclosed.
Vox and Vector both dropped out, leaving the third firm, revealed as Astra Space, an up and coming launch provider, though one whose previous two launch attempts had failed.
Astra planned to launch its Rocket 3.0 from the Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska on Kodiak Island.
However, controllers called a halt 53 seconds before blast-off as key data from the rocket was outside accepted limits.
“We saw some data that concerned us and we decided it would be better to scrub the launch and try again another day, because if the data was correct, it could have definitely caused a problem with the flight,” said Astra chief executive Chris Kemp.
“Winning the challenge would have been fantastic today, but our objective, really, is to reach orbit in as few flights as possible.”
Astra said it would attempt another launch as soon as possible.
The DARPA payload comprised a set of CubeSats bound for LEO. For the next non-DARPA launch, they will be replaced by a commercial payload from a customer willing to take a chance on an unproven launch vehicle.
The failure this week means Astra missed out on the prize money – $2 million for reaching orbit, with another $10 million for a successful launch from a different location within the month.
DARPA conceded this was a hard challenge.
“They got almost there, almost made it to finish line. They just didn’t quite make it. But we learn a lot from these challenges and we think that even being able to get to the point we got to will demonstrate to folks that this is something that is right on the cusp of the possible,” said competition manager Todd Master.
DARPA hasn’t given up on the concept of responsive launch and is considering other possibilities. One is to incorporate a launch into a military exercise, with the satellite providing data to the forces involved.
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