Tucson-based micro-satellite launch company Vector Launch is one of three companies chosen by the Defense Department’s research arm to show they can rapidly launch small payloads into space — and potentially win millions of dollars in prize money.
Vector was picked along with a subsidiary of Virgin Orbit and an undisclosed company to take part in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Launch Challenge, after a nationwide competition among 18 industry teams that prequalified last fall.
In a demonstration DARPA is targeting for early 2020, Vector Launch and the other qualified teams will attempt to launch to low-Earth orbit from two different U.S. locations within a matter of weeks.
To test their responsiveness and flexibility, the teams will receive notice of the first launch site a few weeks prior to launch and exact details on the payload and intended orbit just days before launch, DARPA said.
Vector CEO Jim Cantrell said he and his team felt they had a good chance of winning the DARPA competition, given the company’s primary focus on rapid-launch capabilities.
“It’s a great external validation of not only our company, but of our progress and in a sense, the way the company operates,” Cantrell said. “DARPA was looking for all those (rapid-launch) qualities when they selected the three and this confirms we’re up there in the top three in the business. On top of that, there’s nothing better than a competition, a race if you will, to motivate a company to do better.”
Virgin Orbit is participating through its wholly owned subsidiary, Vox Space. The third company has requested anonymity for the first few months of the challenge, DARPA said.
The agency awarded a $400,000 prize to Vector and the other teams that completed the qualification phase, which included submission and acceptance of a Federal Aviation Administration commercial launch license application.
Teams will receive a $2 million prize for successfully delivering payloads to orbit in the first launch.
For a successful second launch, prizes of $10 million, $9 million, and $8 million are available for the top three teams respectively, ranked by factors including mass, time to orbit, and orbit accuracy, DARPA said.
The agency said it reviewed competitors’ applications based on their technical maturity, a system and approach capable of operating on rapid time scales, and the ability to operate on a launch range with minimal infrastructure.
Founded by veterans of SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, Sea Launch and VMware, Vector has developed small-rocket technology that simplifies operations and manufacturing, along with a portable transporter-erector-launcher to rapidly launch rockets from sites with minimal infrastructure.
The company has conducted several successful test launches and plans its first orbital launch later this year from Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska.
Virgin Orbit has developed a small rocket that is carried to high altitude by a modified Boeing 747 before it is released and fires its two stages to reach orbit.
Todd Master, DARPA’s Launch Challenge program manager, said the military could benefit from technology in development in the commercial market that offer responsiveness and flexibility versus just high-volume launch capabilities.
“Today, most military and government launches are national events that are planned years in advance and require large, fixed infrastructure,” Master said in a news release announcing the awardees. “We want to move to a more risk-accepting philosophy and a much faster pace so we can put assets into space at the speed of warfighter needs.”
Vector’s Cantrell said the military has come to realize that strategically, it needs the ability to quickly launch resources into space rather than rely on legacy programs that take years of planning.
“What they’re trying do, and we’re trying to do, is to make the space-launch campaigns be more like aircraft transportation,” he said. “To the military, this is highly valuable, and I think it’s also a great deterrent to any future warfare in space, if we can demonstrate a real capability to replenish assets quickly.”
Traditionally, FAA licenses are specific to one launch site, one trajectory, and a pre-defined payload, DARPA noted.
Vector and the other Launch Challenge competitors submitted applications for multiple launch sites, which allows for flexibility to choose or shift launch locations as needed, with DARPA providing payload details to the FAA to complete the application review.
Last November, DARPA identified eight potential launch sites: California Spaceport, Vandenberg Air Force Base; Cape Canaveral Spaceport, Florida; Cecil Spaceport, Jacksonville, Florida; Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, Wallops Island, Virginia; Mojave Air and Space Port, California; Naval Outlying Field, San Nicolas Island, California; Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska, Kodiak; Spaceport America, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.