The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently released this 2.5-minute animation showing how the U.S. could launch microsatellites quickly and economically using an F-15-deployed rocket Boeing is developing under the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program.
The ALASA program’s goal is to develop a launch platform that can put a 45-kilogram satellite into orbit within 24 hours notice, for less than $1 million. Brad Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, told SpaceNews last year that this capability is desperately needed in the defense community. “Things take too long and they cost too much,” Tousley said.
In March, 2014, Boeing Defense Space and Security of Huntington Beach, California, won a Pentagon contract, worth up to $104 million, to develop a prototype of the ALASA rocket. The contract also calls for 12 test launches, the first of which is expected sometime in late 2015.
Boeing has said that it intends to slash the cost of microsatellite launches by 66 percent.
At the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference on Feb. 5, Tousley announced that the program was making good progress: “We’re moving ahead with rigorous testing of new technologies that we hope one day could enable revolutionary satellite launch systems that provide more affordable, routine and reliable access to space.”
The ALASA rocket’s design has a number of features aimed at lowering costs and increasing versatility. For starters, ALASA is launched from the belly of a Boeing F-15E fighter jet, enabling “launch in any direction from any location,” as the video puts it.
The rocket itself is fueled by a high-energy monopropellant that combines both fuel and oxidizer into one liquid, simplifying construction. And although the video does not make it clear, the first and second stage of the rocket are powered by the same four rocket engines that are mounted below the payload fairings.
Once this technology has been tested and proven, DARPA plans to hand the ALASA program over to the Air Force and possibly commercial partners. The microsatellite industry is growing and the ALASA promises this market a quick and cost-efficient way of launching such satellites.