DARPA Launch Challenge offers $10M top prize for rapid-turnaround orbital liftoffs

Rocket launchesRocket launches
The DARPA Launch Challenge is designed to provide more incentives for the development of flexible, responsive launch systems. (DARPA Illustration)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Almost 15 years after a $10 million competition gave a boost to private-sector spaceflight, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is kicking off another launch contest with a $10 million grand prize.

The DARPA Launch Challenge — officially unveiled here today at the 34th Space Symposium — won’t send people to the edge of space, as the Ansari X Prize did in 2004. But it will introduce some new twists for the launch industry.

Contest rules call for teams to be given the full details about where and when they’ll launch, what kind of payload they’ll launch, plus what kind of orbit the payload should be launched into, only a couple of weeks in advance. And that’s just half the job. Teams will be required to execute another launch, from a different site, no more than a couple of weeks later.

The precise time frames for giving advance notice are still under discussion, but “I would measure the time scale in days,” Todd Master, program manager for the challenge at DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, told reporters today.

DARPA is setting up a meeting for interested teams on May 23 to outline a process that reaches its climax with the launch campaign in late 2019. Teams will be judged based on a formula that factors in speed, mass and orbit accuracy.

The team with the highest score when all is said and done wins $10 million, plus bragging rights. There’ll be $9 million and $8 million prizes for second and third place, respectively. Along the way, each team that qualifies as “challenge ready” will get a $400,000 boost, and the team that turns in the best performance for the first launch will win $2 million.

DARPA says the rapid-launch competition “will accelerate capabilities and further incentivize industry to deliver launch solutions that are both flexible and responsive.”

“Current launch systems and payload development were created in an era when each space launch was a
national event,” Master said in a news release.

“We want to demonstrate the ability to launch payloads to orbit on extremely short notice, with no prior knowledge of the payload, destination orbit or launch site,” Master said. “The launch environment of tomorrow will more closely resemble that of airline operations — with frequent launches from a myriad of locations worldwide.”

DARPA says the challenge will be run in close coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration, which is currently in charge of licensing commercial launches. Every team that competes will have to have an FAA license for their launch activities.

“Having them as partners in the process is sort of like check-and-balance,” Master told reporters.

Competitors could include space startups such as Rocket Lab, Relativity and Vector Launch. Bigger launch providers such as SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin would be welcome to enter, but “I have my doubts that they would,” Master said.

In the past, the agency has supported much pricier projects to upgrade space launch responsiveness — such as Boeing’s Phantom Express hypersonic space plane, which is due to receive up to $146 million in DARPA funding. But the DARPA Launch Challenge takes a different route, aimed at stimulating the same kind of off-the-street innovation that was fostered by the Ansari X Prize.

In a foreshadowing of DARPA’s contest, the Ansari X Prize competition required two launches to be conducted in the space of two weeks. The SpaceShipOne rocket plane, backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and built by California-based Scaled Composites, won the $10 million prize in October 2004.

Allen said he spent $28 million on the effort, but he was compensated when SpaceShipOne’s technology was licensed to British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture for SpaceShipTwo.

Having another multimillion-dollar spaceflight contest would be a fitting way to celebrate next year’s 15th anniversary of the Ansari X Prize victory.

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