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CHIPS Articles: New DARPA Challenge designed to promote rapid access to space

New DARPA Challenge designed to promote rapid access to space
By CHIPS Magazine - April 20, 2018
Seeking flexible and responsive launch solutions, DARPA is offering more than $10 million in prize money for the first place team that successfully launches to low Earth orbit within days’ notice and completes a second launch from a different site days later.

DARPA said the DARPA Launch Challenge is designed to promote rapid access to space within days, not years. Noting that the U.S. space architecture is currently built around a limited number of exquisite systems with development times of up to 10 years, the launch challenge aims to accelerate capabilities and further incentivize industry to deliver launch solutions that are both flexible and responsive.

“Current launch systems and payload development were created in an era when each space launch was a national event,” said Todd Master, the DARPA Launch Challenge program manager for DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “We want to demonstrate the ability to launch payloads to orbit on extremely short notice, with no prior knowledge of the payload, destination orbit, or launch site. The launch environment of tomorrow will more closely resemble that of airline operations — with frequent launches from a myriad of locations worldwide.”

The commercial small-launch (10kg-1000kg) industry has embraced advances in manufacturing, micro-technologies and autonomous launch/range infrastructure. DARPA seeks to leverage this expertise to transform space system development for the nation’s defense. Frequent, flexible and responsive launch is key to this transformation.

In late 2019, qualified teams will compete for prizes, with a top prize of $10 million, DARPA said. Teams will receive exact details on the payload in the days before each of the two launch events, with only a few weeks’ notice about the location of the first launch site. Once they successfully deliver their payload to low Earth orbit (LEO), competing teams will get details of the second launch site. Teams again will have just days to successfully deliver a second payload to LEO for a chance at a prize. Final ranking for the top three prizes will depend on speed, payload, mass and orbit accuracy.

DARPA is working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is responsible for granting licenses for commercial space launches, and will be involved in planning throughout the challenge. Competitors participating in the DARPA Launch Challenge are required to obtain FAA licenses for all launch activity conducted under this effort.

A competitors’ day with representatives from DARPA and the FAA will be held in Los Angeles May 23, 2018. To register to attend or for additional guidelines on how to participate in the challenge, please visit

DARPA Launch Challenge infographic
DARPA Launch Challenge infographic
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