DARPA's ALASA program will one day be able to launch satellites from fighter jets

DARPA hopes its Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) technology will be able to launch satellites into space for a fraction of current prices.

ALASA is a two-stage rocket that would be attached to the bottom of a fighter jet, with the first-stage beginning after the aircraft leaves the atmosphere.  The second-stage helps ensure the satellite payload is deployed into a stable orbit.

The goal of the ALASA program is to launch 100-pound satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) within 24 hours of being planned.  Project leaders hope that each launch will cost less than $1 million – and would allow for more cost-effective, reliable method to launch satellites into space.

It can cost anywhere from $50 million up to $1 billion to successfully launch a satellite into space, depending on size and where it is being aimed.

The ALASA program aims to send satellites into space for $1 million [Image Source: DARPA]

“Small satellites in the ALASA payload class represent the fastest-growing segment of the space launch market, and DARPA expects this growth trend to continue as small satellites become increasingly more capable,” said Mitchell Burnside Clapp, program manager of DARPA ALASA.

The ALASA program also helps cut costs by reducing infrastructure necessary for launches, with aircraft using runways instead of fixed vertical launch sites. 

Phase I of the project focuses on mission-planning software able to streamline satellite launches and automatic flight-termination systems able to analyze real-time conditions during each flight. 

The first flight demonstration is scheduled for late 2015, with an initial orbital launch expected in the first half of 2016.

The Department of Defense (DoD) and other US government agencies need to sometimes schedule satellite launches years in advance.  There are only a small number of launch sites, so it’s a time consuming and expensive process to launch satellites into space.

First live test could occur in the first half of 2016 [Image Source: DARPA]

In addition to NASA and DARPA's larger corporate defense industry contractors like Boeing and Lockheed, smaller private startups such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are developing their own launch options.  Ideally, they want to be able to send satellites into space at a price tag of $10 million each, and then work on reducing cost.

Boeing was given a contract to design and manufacture an ALASA prototype for DARPA.  It's unclear whether Lockheed who submitted a competitive bid will help with the project.  For past rocket efforts, Boeing and Lockheed have teemed up to deliver awarded contracts.

One potential rub with Boeing's award is that it may raise more questions of anticompetitive contracting.  SpaceX has claimed the the DoD (especially the U.S. Air Force (USAF)) has awarded contracts noncompetitively to Boeing, in defiance of federal open bidding laws.  To be fair, Lockheed -- who has a joint rocket venture with Boeing -- has levelled similar accusations against SpaceX.

Sources:, CBS News, DARPA

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