DARPA makes last-minute change to launch competition rules

Space

WASHINGTON — With just a week before the first scheduled launch in DARPA’s responsive launch competition, the agency is tweaking the rules to allow the sole remaining company to perform both launches from the same spaceport.

Officials with the DARPA Launch Challenge said in a Feb. 18 media briefing that Astra will perform both launches required by the competition from the Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska on Kodiak Island, Alaska, although from two separate pads about 300 meters apart from each other.

When DARPA announced the competition in 2018, the intent was for competitors to perform two launches from two separate sites. In addition, the choice of launch sites would be revealed to competitors just weeks in advance, in order to emphasize the flexible and responsive characteristics of launch systems DARPA believes are needed for future military applications.

DARPA identified four launch sites for vertically launched rockets like the one Astra has developed. In addition to the Alaska site, DARPA selected Vandenberg Air Force Base and Naval Outlying Field on San Nicolas Island, both in California, and Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Astra had already started the process of preparing for a potential launch from Wallops by filing a license application with the Federal Communications Commission in January so its rocket could transmit telemetry in flight.

However, Todd Master, the DARPA program manager running the competition, said the agency had informed Astra Feb. 17 that the company would be able to do its second launch from Alaska. He argued that decision was intended to allow Astra to focus on the launch itself, and not licensing or logistical issues.

“We really didn’t want to make this a logistics challenge or a regulatory challenge,” he said. “Whether we moved 5,000 miles or 1,000 feet, the technical challenges associated with it and the benefit of what we were trying to demonstrate remained the same.”

Master said that DARPA had already decided that the launches would take place from Kodiak or Wallops, a choice made a couple months earlier to minimize the work in licensing and flight safety analyses. He added, though, that the lack of a launch record for Astra — the upcoming launch from Kodiak will be the first orbital launch attempt by the company — was also a factor in the decision to use Kodiak for both attempts.

“We ran into a variety of different missions that were all trying to go from there at the same time,” he said of Wallops. He didn’t name those missions, but a Minotaur 4 launch is scheduled from the spaceport in late March carrying a National Reconnaissance Office payload, and Rocket Lab’s first Electron launch is planned for the site in the second quarter. “History has shown that, when we have a new vehicle that’s on a range with other vehicles that are stacked, particularly when those are large, expensive vehicles with associated infrastructure, people get a little bit nervous.”

Master said that Wallops originally expected Astra to have performed at least two launches prior to attempting a launch from there, rather than the single launch current planned. “With Wallops’ responsibility to protect public safety, the decision to go to Kodiak became a lot easier for us.”

Astra has an FAA license for up to three launches from Kodiak, although the license published by the FAA does not list the trajectories those missions would fly, referring instead to the company’s license application, which is not public. Master said that license needed to be modified for the first DARPA Launch Challenge launch, with another modification required for the second.

“There is going to be two separate approvals from the FAA” for the two launches, said Pam Underwood of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, but declined to say if both could be carried out under the same, existing license.

Chris Kemp, chief executive of Astra, said on the call that the company was ready to launch from Wallops, or anywhere else, if needed. “We were fully prepared to set up anywhere DARPA suggested to us, and the system is completely agnostic to what concrete pad it arrives at and launches from,” he said, other than regulatory issues.

Astra has a narrow window to carry out the first of the two launches. A two-week window opened Feb. 17, but the earliest the company expects to be ready to conduct a launch is Feb. 25. There will be daily launch windows, three hours long, through March 1. DARPA will webcast the launch.

Master, though, suggested that the window could be extended if there are delays beyond the company’s control, such as weather. Astra will have a minimum of four “green days” where conditions are favorable for that first launch. “If we get high winds for every single day for the next two weeks, which I really hope we don’t have, we would give them additional time until they have those four windows,” he said.

If Astra does successfully launch in that first window, and thus win $2 million, a second window would open March 18 and run through the end of the month. A successful second launch would give the company an additional $10 million.

In addition to the prize purse, Master said that DARPA helped cover at least some of the costs of transporting the rocket to the launch site. The rocket for the first launch attempt arrived within a couple hours of the Feb. 18 briefing.

DARPA has also disclosed the payload that the first launch will carry. It includes one cubesat, Prometheus, developed for the Defense Department by Los Alamos National Laboratory as a communications experiment, and two cubesats from the University of South Florida to test intersatellite communications links. A third payload, a beacon called Space Object Automated Reporting Systems intended to improve space situational awareness, will remain attached to the rocket.

While DARPA hopes that the competition will demonstrate responsive launch capabilities uniquely needed by the military, Astra has been playing down the importance of the competition for its own business. In a Feb. 13 interview, Kemp said he expected it would take a “few attempts” before Astra reached orbit. “It’s not our expectation that our first launch will succeed, but it is our expectation that a campaign will succeed if we launch, learn and iterate,” he said.

Master declined to speculate how the competition might have unfolded differently had companies been able to perform both launches from the same spaceport all along. However, there are no plans by DARPA to run another version of the competition regardless of the outcome of the upcoming Astra launches.

“If I extended the competition, or held the competition in another year, I’m not sure that I would have more participants,” he said, saying the competition was accurately timed to the development of a number of small launch vehicles. “When we set this up, our expectation was that we were hitting it at the right time.”

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