Forget the launchpads, the giant rockets, and the gazillion-dollar prices for getting satellites into space. If Darpa, the military’s wild research arm, has its way, it’ll take little more than a super-smart jumbo jet to rapidly punch our orbiters beyond the sky.
Darpa recently launched a $145 million program that aspires to transform how we get our growing satellite arsenal into orbit — all while keeping an eye on the Pentagon’s pocket book. They want to dispatch satellites from the sky rather than the ground, be able to do it in less than a day’s notice, and cut costs by turning the entire process into an autonomous one.
The agency’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program would forgo the conventional ground-based satellite launches, and instead rely on subsonic airliners that could take off from any runway, park in the sky and then fire off a satellite on a desired trajectory. The approach would have some obvious benefits: It’d eliminate the need to plan and prepare a fixed launch site, which requires months of forethought and is vulnerable to postponement because of weather, natural disasters or even attacks from adversaries. And aerial launches would lend more flexibility to a satellite’s eventual location, by eliminating “concerns for launch direction limits imposed by geography.”
That means when American satellites are shot down by Chinese sat-killing weapons during the looming 21st-century space war, Darpa’s dream launcher will be able to pump new ones — presumably the cheap, small, disposable ‘bots recently debuted by the Air Force — right back into orbit, anytime and from anywhere, within 24 hours.
All that, and the system’s gotta be cheap: Darpa wants a launching system that can cut a third out of conventional launch costs, which currently run up to $30,000 per pound of payload, which translates to $2 billion per launching system per year…all for a mere 8 to 10 launches. The agency suspects that trimming all the extra fat — such necessary amenities like launchpads, maintenance crews and ground support — will translate into plenty of savings. “Conventional launch practices entail lengthy engagement of launch range, facilities, and personnel,” the agency’s solicitation reads. “Leading to expenditures of many millions of dollars per event.”
But without human personnel, the system would need to be pretty much self-sufficient. Indeed, Darpa notes that ALASA is looking for a launcher requiring “no recurring maintenance or support, and no specific integration to prepare for launch.”
Should Darpa’s new launch system work out (the agency is looking for demonstrations within four years), it should pair nicely with the Air Force’s plans for super-smart satellites that can pilot themselves. To sum up: The Pentagon’s working towards an entirely autonomous network of self-piloting space ‘bots, zombie antennas and self-repairing launch systems, orbiting the Earth and plotting deep-space warfare with their foes. Good heavens.