The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the advanced applied science arm of the US Department of Defense (DoD), has selected Lockheed Martin, Virgin Galactic and Boeing to develop small launch vehicles under the airborne launch assist space access (ALASA) programme.
The resulting systems developed by the three companies are meant to launch 45kg (100lb) payloads into orbit for $1 million or less. Further requirements include use of a "fundamentally unmodified" aircraft that can be converted from its standard configuration to launch vehicle within 24h.
There are no US-built launch vehicles dedicated to lifting such small payloads - generally smallsats, as they are known, hitch rides on larger launchers with excess capacity.
"The ALASA demonstration system will draw upon emerging technologies to provide increased specific impulse propellants, stable propellant formulations, hybrid propellant systems, potential 'infrastructure-free' cryogen production," and several other areas of technology, according to DARPA.
Virgin Galactic has unveiled a revamped LauncherOne for the award, which will see disposable rockets launched from WhiteKnightTwo, the carrier aircraft normally used to launch the manned suborbital vehicle SpaceShipTwo.
Neither Lockheed nor Northrop were able to respond to immediate questions, but Lockheed's concept is said to involve a tactical fighter.