[Avionics Today April 1, 2014] The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) charged engineers at Boeing with developing a new airborne method for launching micro satellites weighing up to 100 pounds into space, under a new 11-month $30.6 million contract.
Boeing artist's concept of ALASA capability. Photo, courtesy of Boeing.
Boeing and DARPA will work on the new satellite launch vehicle concept designed by the agency's Phantom Works Advanced Space Exploration division. DARPA believes the new capability, the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) project, would cut the cost of routinely launching micro satellites into orbit by 66 percent.
"According to DARPA, ALASA aims to develop and employ radical advances in launch systems, leading to more affordable and responsive space access compared to current military and U.S. commercial launch operations," DARPA said.
The concept would involve an F-15E fighter jet flying an attached ALASA vehicle to an altitude of 40,000 feet, and then allowing it to fire its four main engines and launch into a low-Earth orbit. "As these stages are jettisoned (or dropped), the fuel tank and engines are just thrown away. We developed a cost-effective design by moving the engines forward on the launch vehicle. With our design, the first and second stages are powered by the same engines, reducing weight and complexity,” said Steve Johnston, director for advanced space exploration at Boeing.
According to DARPA, rockets used in space launches include a range of different stages, including each with its own engine and fuel tanks. However, the ALASA vehicle powers the first and second stages with the same engine, helping to reduce weight, complexity and fuel burn.