A the 18th Annual Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference, Bradford Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office showed the progress of the project ALASA (Airborne Launch Assist Space Access), a system to launch small satellites using an airplane instead of a carrier rocket. This would greatly reduce the cost, currently very high, down to one million dollars for just under 50 kg (100 pounds).
The concept is not new. For example, Orbital Sciences has already used the airplane Stargazer, a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar modified to be used to launch a small Pegasus rocket. In this way, it can launch small payloads up to 443 kg (1,000 pounds) into low Earth orbit. For example, the NuSTAR space telescope was launched using this system.
DARPA is an agency of the US Department of Defense and is developing a similar system to launch small satellites for the military or otherwise on behalf of government agencies. In recent years, more and more satellites are sent into orbit and it’s necessary to schedule the launches well in advance because there’s a limited amount of rocket. Although a powerful rocket can launch several small satellites, that’s no longer enough for the needs of the various agencies.
Thanks to the diffusion of really small satellites, a system capable of launching them easily and with a very limited preparation would be perfect. A military jet can be launched with a minimal notice. The challenge of the project ALASA is to design a small rocket that is simple enough to be prepared for the launch of a microsatellite in a short term.
According to DARPA, the first phase of the project, the design of the systems required, was completed. Now the agency intends to move to the second phase, one in which the technologies implemented in the project are developed and tested. In March 2014, DARPA signed a contract with Boeing, an aerospace company that needs no introduction, to participate in the second phase.
According to the plans, by 2015 there should be the first test launch. Depending on the results, in 2016 up to 11 additional test launches will be conducted. Of course, the ALASA system will only work for microsatellites of limited size but the growth of this type of satellites has been remarkable in recent years so it would be a great progress.