WASHINGTON — Boeing Defense Space and Security of Huntington Beach, Calif., has won a three-way competition for a Pentagon contract worth as much as $104 million to build and demonstrate a low-cost, airborne satellite launching system, according to a March 24 posting on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

The contract is for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’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 as low as $1 million each.

Part of a broader DARPA effort to reduce the cost and turnaround time of national security space launches, ALASA seeks to use a rocket launched from modified fighter-jet aircraft taking off from a standard airport runway. Doing so, they argue, would allow the Defense Department to launch from almost anywhere, whereas currently space launches are restricted to just a few sites: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.; Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.; Wallops Flight Facility, Va.; and Kodiak Island in Alaska. 

The ALASA rocket, measuring 7.3 meters long, would be attached to the underbelly of a Boeing-built F-15E fighter aircraft. Once the plane reaches an altitude of approximately 12,000 meters, the rocket would be released and then ignite to carry its payload to orbit.

The launch scheme is similar to that of the Pegasus XL air-launched rocket, which was developed by Orbital Sciences Corp. — also under a DARPA program — and is carried aloft by a modified Lockheed L-1011 aircraft. Although it became an established rocket, the Pegasus XL proved more expensive than anticipated and is seldom used these days.

In a March 29 press release, Boeing said its aim is to reduce the cost of launching microsatellites by 66 percent.

“We developed a cost-effective design by moving the engines forward on the launch vehicle. With our design, the first and second stages are powered by the same engines, reducing weight and complexity,” Steve Johnston, Boeing’s director of advanced space exploration, said in a March 28 press release.

The base value of Boeing’s cost-plus fixed-fee, 11-month contract is $30.6 million, with a first option worth $72 million and a second option worth $2 million, according to the Federal Business Opportunities posting. Work is expected to be completed by Feb. 20, 2015, the posting said.

In 2012, DARPA awarded ALASA design contracts to Boeing, Lockheed Martin — which proposed launching from an F-22 aircraft — and Virgin Galactic, the space tourism outfit that is now testing an air-launched, passenger-carrying suborbital vehicle dubbed SpaceShipTwo. DARPA had previously awarded ALASA technology development contracts to Northrop Grumman, Space Information Laboratories and Ventions. 

In an interview with SpaceNews prior to the Boeing contract announcement, Brad Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said the agency was seeking to leverage existing production aircraft. “We’re trying to get with an aircraft we don’t have to modify or [modify] very, very little,” he said.

ALASA program managers expect to perform propulsion and system risk reduction testing this year as well as complete captive-carry and aircraft compatibility flight tests, according to DARPA budget documents. The program is aiming for a demonstration launch in fiscal year 2015. 

“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.”

DARPA requested $55 million for the program in 2015, up from $42 million in 2014, according to the budget documents.

The Army and the Air Force have been identified as potential transition customers for the ALASA system, budget documents said.

Follow Mike on Twitter: @Gruss_SN

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...