The clock is running for DARPA Launch Challenge, with stealthy Astra Space racing to win $10M prize

Astra Space launch
Astra Space launches a test rocket from Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska in Kodiak. (Astra Space Photo)

The DARPA Launch Challenge has begun, with a once-stealthy startup called Astra Space aiming to launch two rockets from an Alaska spaceport within the next month and a half to win a $10 million grand prize.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency set up the challenge in 2018 to serve as an added incentive for private-sector development of a highly mobile launch system that the military could use.

At first, DARPA specified that two orbital launches would have to be executed over the course of two weeks from completely separate launch sites in order to win the top prize. However, program manager Todd Master said the plan was changed for logistical and regulatory reasons. Dealing with all the hassles associated with launches from widely separated sites “wasn’t really our goal in solving the challenge,” Master told reporters today during a teleconference.

The current rules call for each of the two required launches to take place during a 14-day window. Both launches would lift off from Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska on Kodiak Island, but from separate pads that are about 1,000 feet apart.

Eighteen teams were pre-qualified for the competition last year, and for the final fly-off,  DARPA selected three finalists: Virgin Orbit’s VOX Space subsidiary, Vector Space and the stealth company that eventually revealed itself to be California-based Astra Space. Virgin Orbit dropped out to concentrate on getting its air-launch system ready for commercial operations, while Vector Space ran into financial problems. That left Astra as the sole competitor.

Today DARPA said that the first 14-day window has opened, and that Astra Space has until March 1 to execute the first liftoff to a specified sun-synchronous orbit. It’ll take several days of setup for Astra to get the pad ready for launch, which means the earliest launch date is Feb. 25.

The rules say Astra has to be given at least four days with acceptable weather for launch. That could lead to the window being extended if the weather is iffy.

The second rocket will have to be readied and launched to a slightly different sun-synchronous orbit during a time frame that extends from March 18 to 31.

Master said that Astra would win $2 million for a successful first launch, and $10 million for a second launch success. Although Astra has been given the coordinates for target orbits with altitudes in the range of 450 kilometers (280 miles), the company would still get the money as long as its payloads achieved orbits as low as 155 miles (250 kilometers). “Our success criterion is achieving orbit,” Master said.

The first launch is tasked with deploying three ARCE-1 networked communication satellites developed by the University of South Florida; an experimental Prometheus military satellite; and a spacecraft identification beacon for the Space Object Automated Reporting System, or SOARS.

Payloads for the second launch haven’t yet been announced.

Master said that the prize money probably won’t come close to covering Astra’s development cost for its launch system, but that winning that challenge would allow the company to portray itself as “uniquely capable” for rapid-turnaround launches.

Astra has never even tried sending a payload to orbit before, and Astra CEO Chris Kemp noted that it usually takes four launches or so for a new orbital-class rocket to succeed. To use a golf analogy, Kemp’s company is hoping to achieve the equivalent of a hole-in-one on what he is calling a “par-four” course.

But if Astra is successful, Kemp said the payoff would far exceed the $12 million that DARPA could be paying out.

“The nation now has a completely portable launch system,” he said.

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