US small launch vehicle suppliers use DARPA funding to develop and demonstrate ideas for affordable space lift

A military programme to develop technology for quick-reaction satellite launches and global-range strikes is giving US small launch vehicle developers a crucial infusion of US government funding.

Under contracts awarded in September by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) four companies are working to demonstrate different approaches to, and aspects of, affordable and responsive space lift.

Under DARPA's Falcon programme, AirLaunch is proposing a booster dispensed from a Boeing C-17 airlifter; Lockheed Martin is working on innovative hybrid propulsion; Microcosm is pursuing a high modular vehicle; and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is looking at military applications of its private-venture Falcon low-cost launcher, scheduled for a first flight early next year.

Under 10-month Phase 2a risk-reduction contracts worth $8-12 million, the companies are demonstrating their small launch vehicle (SLV) designs. For Phase 2b, DARPA plans to award one or more contracts to build and launch in 2007 an SLV able to place 450kg (1,000lb) into low Earth orbit at short notice for less than $5 million a launch.

Reno, Nevada-based AirLaunch plans to test-drop an inert full-scale model of its QuickReach vehicle from an unmodified C-17 in mid-2005 to demonstrate it will clear the aircraft as it leaves the loading ramp in flight. The operational two-stage booster will use vapour-pressurised liquid-oxygen/propane-fuelled rocket engines. "It does not require a dedicated aircraft and can be used when needed," says Steven Walker, Falcon programme manager.

Louisiana-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems plans three tests of a rocket motor that combines LOx with a fuel grain that is "not as solid or as explosive" as in other hybrid concepts, says Walker, and which promises reduced production and operation costs. "It works with a sounding rocket, but can they scale it up?" he asks.

California-based Microcosm will demonstrate the composite LOx tank, pressurised kerosene feed system and ablative combustion chamber for the common "pods" that make up its Scorpius low-cost launcher.

SpaceX, meanwhile, "will take what they have developed and make it responsive", says Walker. SpaceX will demonsrate the launch within 48h of a stored pump-fed LOx/kerosene Falcon 1 from Kwajalein in the Pacific.



Source: Flight International