Astra Ready for DARPA Launch Challenge

Astra Ready for DARPA Launch Challenge

DARPA’s Launch Challenge is on!  The prize-money competition to demonstrate flexible, responsive launch capabilities should see its first rocket launch before March 1 from Kodiak Island, Alaska.  The sole remaining competitor, Astra, will have to reach orbit and then do it again within two weeks to win $12 million.

Started two years ago, the purpose of the Launch Challenge is to demonstrate the ability to launch payloads into space from different sites with little advance notice to meet military requirements.  DARPA wanted to take advantage of the growing number of U.S. commercial space launch companies as well as the advent of commercial spaceports.  As commercial launches, participants had to get licenses from the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST).

The competition has evolved as some competitors withdrew and regulatory realities set in, however.  First, of the more than 50 teams that submitted applications, only 18 got through the first gate to participate.  Only three of those got through two other steps, including getting their FAA/AST license.

Since then, two of the three withdrew:  Vector, which went out of business; and Vox, a subsidiary of Virgin Orbit, that decided to focus on its commercial business.  That left one company, which operated in stealth mode until quite recently when it revealed itself as Astra of Alameda, CA.

During a media teleconference today, DARPA program manager Todd Master explained one very recent change to the rules of the competition.  The idea was to demonstrate flexibility and responsiveness by requiring that competitors conduct two launches within weeks of each other from two different launch sites.  The competitors knew in advance only that it could be one of four:  Naval Outlying Field near Pt. Mugu, CA; Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA; Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA; and the Pacific Spaceport Complex, Kodiak, AK.

Two months ago, however, DARPA concluded that keeping many launch dates open at four different ranges was a challenge, so narrowed it to Wallops and Kodiak, two sites about 5,000 miles apart.

Another issue, however, was that Wallops is part of a federal government range, adding another layer of complexity to getting the required approvals.  As the launch date neared, DARPA concluded that both launches could take place from two different locations at the same launch site — Kodiak — which is owned by Alaska Aerospace, an agency of the State of Alaska.  Master described it as a “truly commercial” spaceport that falls entirely under the FAA’s  jurisdiction.  It has two launch pads about 1,000 feet apart.

“We really didn’t want to make this a logistics challenge or a regulatory challenge, but what we looked at was whether we moved 5,000 miles or 1,000 feet the technical challenges associated with it, and the benefit to what we are trying to demonstrate … are equal.” — Todd Master, DARPA

In the end, then, the challenge involves only one company that will conduct two launches a few weeks apart from two different launch pads at the same launch site.  Astra was told just yesterday that both launches would be at Kodiak.

The first launch window opened yesterday, February 17, with the launch expected between February 25 and March 1.  The second window opens on March 18.  Extensions are possible if weather is a problem.  Master said Astra was promised it would have at least four “green days” in each window when conditions are favorable for launch.  The launch time is expected to be 11:30 am local time on whatever day it takes place.  DARPA will webcast the launch on its website.

Astra will win $2 million for the first launch if it reaches orbit, and $10 million if the second launch reaches orbit.  Although there are specific orbital parameters DARPA is seeking, the rules stipulate only that orbit is achieved.

Illustration of Astra’s rocket. Snip from DARPA’s Launch Challenge website.

That is not a sure bet.  Chris Kemp and Adam London, co-founders of Astra and its CEO and CTO respectively, reined in expectations during today’s telecon.  Although they have tested sections of the rocket, it is being integrated for the first time at Kodiak.  They view this as the first launch in a campaign that will ultimately result in reaching orbit.  Kemp said “we would be delighted, but are not expecting to fully achieve all of the objectives here, but the nation now has a completely portable launch system and … in the months ahead we will launch and launch and launch again….”

Astra is a no frills rocket company as the name of rocket, 1 of 3, conveys.  It is 11.6 meters (38 feet) in height and 1.32 meters (4.3 feet) in diameter and can launch a very modest 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of payload into a Sun Synchronous Orbit.

One point of the challenge is demonstrating the ability to launch payloads that might not be known until the last minute to meet a tactical need.  Thus Astra was not told what would be aboard the first launch until 30 days in advance: four cubesats and one hosted payload:  a DOD Prometheus cubesat; three cubesats built by the University of South Florida, Articulated Reconnaissance and Communications Expedition-1 (ARCE-1), that will fly together and demonstrate intersatellite links; and a Tiger Innovations Space Object Automated Reporting Systems (SOARS) beacon to support space situational awareness.  Astra will be told the payloads for the second launch also 30 days in advance.


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