Feb 25, 2020 - Science

A DARPA launch challenge takes flight


Photo: NASA

The last company vying for a $12 million DARPA prize for launching rockets two times from two locations with little notice could stage its first flight as early as this week.

The big picture: DARPA's launch challenge is designed to simulate a real-life scenario that the military may require of its launch providers in the future.

  • If, for example, the military needs immediate eyes on a part of Earth that can't be easily surveyed by other means, having this rapid-launch capability could mean getting a small satellite to orbit and in operation quickly to help.

Details: The company — named Astra — was originally aiming to launch its first rocket from Kodiak, Alaska, on Tuesday, but bad weather in the area has pushed the attempt back.

  • The launch window for the first attempt is open until Sunday, but depending on the weather, DARPA may extend that window.
  • To win the full $12 million, the company will then need to launch a second rocket once the second launch window opens in mid-March from a different pad at the same launch site in Alaska.
  • Originally, it was expected that DARPA would request that the company stage one launch from Alaska and the other from another launch facility, but concerns over logistics caused the agency to pick two different launch pads at the same site instead.

Between the lines: Astra isn't hanging its hopes on winning the DARPA challenge to make its business successful. CEO Chris Kemp told Axios that Astra doesn't expect its first launch will get a satellite to orbit.

  • The company instead sees the launch series as a way of testing its rocket and changing things as needed.
  • "We're not aiming for perfection," Kemp told Axios earlier this month. "We're aiming for overall economics that we can offer our customers and offer our shareholders."
  • Astra plans to focus on launching small satellites whose operators are looking for a deal on getting into space more cheaply than other options.

Go deeper: You can watch the launch webcast live through DARPA.

Go deeper