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DARPA Seeks Better Satellite Launch System

Defense research agency wants a cheaper, faster, and more reliable way to launch smaller satellites.
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The Department of Defense (DOD) is looking for a cheaper and more efficient way to launch small satellites, which currently is an expensive and unpredictable endeavor.

Through its Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to reduce the time it takes to launch a small satellite, as well as find a way to get around weather constraints that cause launches to be cancelled at the last minute.

The program also aims to reduce the cost of a satellite launch, which can be up to $30,000 per pound, a figure DARPA program manager Mitchell Burnside Clapp said is "unsustainable over the long haul."

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Being dependent upon a bigger satellite that's also being launched is another concern DARPA aims to eliminate.

"Even when our increasingly capable small satellites are launched, they are obliged to go to orbits selected by the primary payload on current launchers, rather than to the orbits their designers and operators would prefer," Clapp said in a press statement.

The DOD and NASA are both working on developing smaller satellites that are less expensive to send into orbit and don't have the same complexities for launch that larger ones do.

ALASA aims to reduce costs per flight to less than $1 million for 100-pound satellites, a figure that also includes support costs, according to DARPA.

To launch small satellites into a dedicated orbit preferable to those managing the launch (rather than orbits dependent on other satellites they're launched with), DARPA envisions a launch design in which an aircraft will carry smaller satellites and their boosters, either inside or externally. The aircrafts will then release the satellite and booster at a certain altitude and direction along their climb into space.

DARPA has released a request for proposals seeking ideas for technology that can contribute to making this vision a reality, including propellant systems, inflight liquid-oxygen production, motor case materials, flight controls, nozzle designs, and thrust vectoring, among others. Those interested in responding have until Dec. 20 to do so.