DARPA Launch Challenge Nears End with Modified Rules, One Competitor

The DARPA Launch Challenge is nearing its end with modified rules and only one of three finalists left standing to win $12 million in prize money.

Astra Space will attempt to conduct two launches within days of each other from the Pacific Spaceport Complex — Alaska on Kodiak Island. The launches will take place from different pads at the spaceport and place satellites into different sun-synchronous trajectories.

Astra Space would receive $2 million for a successful launch during the first launch window running from Feb. 25 to March 1. If that flight is successful, a second launch window would follow in March. Astra Space would win $10 million for a successful second launch.

Originally, competitors were required complete two launches from entirely different locations. However, DARPA altered the rules for logistical and regulatory reasons.

Astra Space’s first booster, named 1 of 3, has been shipped to the Alaskan launch site. The 11.6 meter tall rocket is 1.32 meters in diameter and features battery powered, pump-fed engines that use liquid oxygen and RP-1 fuel.

Astra Space rocket (Credit: DARPA)

Astra Space hopes to make money from the ultra-low cost rocket by charging only $1 million per launch. The company, which is located in Alemeda, Calif., recently came out of stealth mode.

Payloads for the first flight include:

Prometheus: A CubeSat developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory that is designed to provide military operators with tactically relevant information in a more timely manner.

Articulated Reconnaissance and Communications Expedition – 1 (ARCE-1): A pair of research and technology demonstration CubeSats that will fly together in the same orbit and perform inter-satellite networked communications with a high degree of system autonomy. Developed and built by the University of South Florida.

The Space Object Automated Reporting Systems (SOARS): SOARS combines space-object beacons; automated, low-cost, ground collection sites; and a central control center which together provide near-real time 24/7 location data to support space situational awareness, space domain awareness and orbital safety activities.

Payloads for the second launch have not been publicly announced.

Two other finalists dropped out of the competition. Vector went bankrupt. Virgin Orbit’s VOX Space subsidiary said it withdrew to focus on the maiden flight of LauncherOne, which is air launched from a converted Boeing 747 airliner.