These are all emerging launch firms – Vector, Vox Space, a US subsidiary of Virgin Orbit, plus an unnamed firm that remained in stealth mode. That means its identity remains secret, lest it tip off competitors.
The shortlist of three emerged from an initial pool of 55 companies that expressed interest, with 30 actually submitting their launch concepts to DARPA.
The level of interest clearly demonstrates the energy of the space launch business and the winner could well set the standard for future low-cost launches for the civil and military sectors.
DARPA said its goal was to demonstrate 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. The development cycle with the systems is tedious, with a process driven by a desire to reduce risk, rather than deliver timely capabilities,” it said.
The challenge will culminate in two separate launch competitions to low-Earth orbit (LEO) within days of each other at different locations in the US.
That will occur early next year but to assess responsiveness, companies won’t be told when or from what space port they will launch until about a month before.
Companies that succeed in placing a payload into orbit will receive US$2 million but then they’ll have to do it again on short notice from a second launch site.
Companies that successfully complete the second launch will be eligible for a US$10 million first prize, with US$9 million for second prize and US$8 million for third.
The three qualifying companies each received US$400,000 just for making it to the shortlist. DARPA announced the shortlist at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado.
Competition manager Todd Master said two of the shortlisted companies were using ground launch systems and that none of the companies have put payloads into orbit.
Virgin Orbit is developing the LauncherOne air-launch system, with the rocket launched from an aircraft such as a Boeing 747 at high altitude.
To down select to three contenders, DARPA reviewed competitor applications based on technical maturity, a system and approach capable of operating on rapid timescales and the ability to operate on a launch range with minimal infrastructure.
Commercial space developments of recent years set the stage for the Launch Challenge, with new entrants to the space marketplace and small satellites offering advanced capabilities.
“There’s a real benefit to making use of something already in development in the commercial market, and offering incentives to modify systems and approaches to favour responsiveness and flexibility versus just favouring high cadence for commercial customers,” Mr Master said.
“Today, most military and government launches are national events that are planned years in advance and require large, fixed infrastructure. We want to move to a more risk-accepting philosophy and a much faster pace so we can put assets into space at the speed of warfighter needs.”
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