Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is still in schedule with Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA).
After failure of Super Strypi, one of DARPA programs for high mobility launching system for small and micro satellites, Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) is still waiting for first launches in 2016. Idea of airborne launch system is positively verified by Orbital ATK Pegasus, but still had few drawbacks and it was not meeting DARPA demands. It was unable to be quickly used, it had high cost of every launch and it required special launch site. Also Pegasus still needs large plane for being lift on 12000 m, so every launch was quite difficult to be concealed. Also activity of ORBITAL ATK before using Pegasus, even if is limited comparing to launch of Atlas V, still remains easy to detect. Some missions required of highest level of confidentiality, especially in the situation when every move is under continuous observation; also limiting commercial participation in some projects is necessary. That is why military is still looking for solutions combining mobility, confidential, ability of being used ad hoc without extended preparing and remaining only in disposition of Department of Defense with limiting access of external factors.
ALASA is system under development of DARPA since 2011. From the beginning ALASA was not associated with one company; contractors were divided by DARPA in two categories with various amounts of donating. First group was focused on general technologies, which could be use by any contractor. Three companies were accepted in this group: Northrop Grumman ($2.3 million), Space Information Laboratories LLC ($1.9 million) and Ventions LLC ($969.396). Second group was tasked to focus on creating launch system. In this group were selected following Companies: Lockheed Martin ($6.2 million), Boeing ($4.5 million) and Virgin Galactic with their WhiteKnight2 as proposition. In 2012 objective of ALASA was officially announced. DARPA gave to public that ALASA will be designed for launching 24 micro satellites equipped with high resolution cameras (imaging resolution at 1 meter). Also it became clear, that DARPA demands launch system for using in military aircraft without any modifications required. Further development was pushed forward by establishing $40 million budget for ALASA in 2013. In 2014 phase 2 of the project was started, with Boeing as main contractor – contract was worth $56.3 million. Budget for 2015 was planned for $55 million including first demonstration launch. In first half of 2016 twelve launches are planned from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
Launch of the ALASA system is similar to Orbital ATK Pegasus. First stage of system is designed to be an F15E fighter as lifting vehicle. After reaching 12000 m rocket will be dropped for 7.3 m from F15E (plane is able to launch ALASA during regular mission). Rocket will start four engines placed in the front of the rocket and reach orbit when payload will separate. It is planned to incorporate modern technology in fueling system. Propellant will be combination of nitrous oxide and acetylene. They will mix in tank in temperature only little below room temperature what simplifies preparation before start and helps in cutting costs of every launch.
It could be said that Boeing proposition is filling all DARPA requirements. Designed as missile launched from F15E fighter (same F15 in previous version was designated as first fighter able to launch ASM-135 antisatellite missile) starting from any military or civilian airfield. Boeing rocket is designed to lift micro satellite with weight at 45 kg and for around $1 million. Comparing to Pegasus with cost at $56.3 million ALASA becomes more than economically justified solution for micro satellites. If we add possibility of storing ALASA rockets just like regular air-to-air missiles, possibility of creating stock of rockets, mobility and possibility of launch with high level of confidential and in any time, Boeing project seems to be temptingly. Everything will be clear after planned demonstration launches on 2016. Maybe we are in the beginning of the revolution; just like in the eighties cassette players jumped into pockets, maybe now best way of development is not designing huge rockets but put effort to design small satellites ?