DARPA has scrapped plans to launch small satellites from a modified F-15 fighter jet, shown in the rendering above, after two tests of a new rocket fuel ended in explosions this year. Boeing is the prime contractor on the program. Credit: DARPA.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded Boeing a contract worth as much as $104 million to build and demonstrate a low-cost airborne launching system for small satellites, according to a March 24 posting on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

The contract is for DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program, which is intended to field a system to launch satellites weighing up to 45 kilograms into low Earth orbit for $1 million each.

The base value of Boeing’s contract is $30.6 million, with a first option worth $72 million and a second option worth $2 million, according to the posting.

“ALASA will enable small satellites to be deployed to orbit from an airborne platform, allowing performance improvement, reducing range costs and flying more frequently, which drives cost per event down,” DARPA budget documents say. “The ability to relocate and launch from any major runway around the globe reduces the time needed to deploy a satellite system.”

The program is aiming for a demonstration launch in fiscal year 2015. DARPA requested $55 million for the program in 2015, up from $42 million in 2014, according to the budget documents.

DARPA in 2012 awarded ALASA design contracts to Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Virgin Galactic, along with related technology development contracts to three other companies.

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Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...