Home / Military / Doctrine & Strategy / DARPA Launch Challenge to enable US DOD’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) strategy for Space warfare

DARPA Launch Challenge to enable US DOD’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) strategy for Space warfare

Military today is more reliant on space than ever before including ISR, Electronic warefare, Communications, Command and control and ballistic Missile defence. The joint warfighter uses space to satisfy an ever expanding and diverse set of requirements such as  cutting the fog and friction of war or to enable net-centric operations.  To meet some of these needs , military is developing and operating large, complex satellites and constellations such as Advanced EHF, TSAT, Space Radar, Wideband Gapfiller, and SBIRS.


Space has  become another domain of warfare and there is  threat of degradation or destruction of satellites through  electronic and kinetic attacks by adversaries. Because of antisatellite capabilites, the satellites in all  orbits  are vulnerable…be it from natural, accidental or deliberate actions.


In response to these threats US DOD is giving thrust to Operationally Responsive Space or ORS strategy that  will provide an affordable capability to promptly, accurately and decisively position and operate national and military assets in and through space and near space. “The ORS vision is to provide rapid, tailorable space power focused at the operational and tactical level of war, ” siad Lt. Gen. Frank G. Klotz, Vice Commander, Air Force Space Command during Responsive Space Conference.


Master explained that the current routine for launching military and government payloads requires years of advance planning and large, fixed infrastructure. “We want to move to a more risk-accepting philosophy and a much faster pace so we can put assets into space at the speed of warfighter needs,” he said.


“Responsive Space will enable us at Air Force Space Command, and the entire National Security Space enterprise, to offset a portion of the Combatant Commander’s loss in capability. Additionally, we see Responsive Space as an excellent way to test new technology and concepts before committing to a larger-scale system. Responsive Space systems, which by their nature are smaller and less expensive, are ideal platforms to test these capabilities prior to full maturity.”


“ORS is unlike a traditional space program…in reality, it’s not a single program. We view ORS as an enabler with four  components. Responsive Satellites, Responsive Spacelift, Responsive Launch Ranges and Near Space systems. These components, following the ORS mandate, are being designed from the start to meet warfighter needs. To do so quickly. To do so affordably.”


This is inline with  U.S. Space Transportation Policy that clearly states…”The United States Government shall: Demonstrate an initial capability for operationally responsive access to and use of space — providing capacity to respond to unexpected loss or degradation of selected capabilities, and to provide timely availability of tailored or new capabilities — to support national security requirements”


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) plans to tap the private sector after declaring no contest winners for the agency’s commercial launch competition. DARPA previously selected Virgin Orbit, Vector Space and Atmosphere and Space Technology Research Associates (Astra) for the DARPA Launch Challenge in 2018. Virgin backed out of the competition while Vector filed for bankruptcy last year. Astra, the sole competitor, failed to conduct the launch within the specified time period.


DARPA’s  Launch Challenge competition  is meant to boost commercial innovation in a technological area of interest to the military — in this case, rapid and flexible launch capabilities. “As indicated in the quickly narrowing field of competitors, responsive and flexible access to space remains a significant challenge,” Todd Master, program manager for the DARPA Launch Challenge, said in an agency news release.


“All of our assets that we launch into space today are typically planned, at a minimum, one year in advance,” he said. “As we start to look at space as a warfighting domain in the future, we need to really take a closer look at how do we promote speed as a priority.” Master said DARPA is looking into integrating the rapid-launch concept into other military activities such as the Rim of the Pacific exercise. The agency also plans to coordinate with the U.S. Space Force and other entities for related efforts, according to the report.


“Could we launch a satellite to orbit, commission that satellite and provide tactical data to the user within the time frame of the exercise, which would start to really show how it could be militarily relevant?” he asked. “We’re trying to see if there’s something that we can pursue in combination with the services on that front to sort of take the theoretical into practice.”


DARPA launch Challenge history

The DARPA Launch Challenge will require the stealth company to conduct two launches weeks apart from two different launch sites, with just 30 days notice which spaceport will be first. The rapid-launch competition offered $2 million to any competitor that completed the first launch. DARPA would award $10 million for the first-prize winner of the second launch, $9 million as a second-place prize and $8 million for the third placer.


The challenge was daunting. “From the time you pack up your rocket from your company from your factory, get to the launch site, stand it up, fuel it and launch it, that’s the operational piece,” Master said in an interview. “We gave them 14 days to do all of that.”


Out of the 18 teams that pre-qualified, DARPA whittled it down to three competitors for the final stage: Virgin Orbit, Vector Space and Astra. However, Virgin Orbit ultimately backed out to focus on other ventures, and Vector went out of business, leaving Astra as the only remaining participant.


DARPA said Vox Space, which markets Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne air-launched rocket to military customers, withdrew from the challenge  month so that Virgin Orbit can “focus on its upcoming commercial launches.” Vector withdrew in September because of financial problems, DARPA said. Vector announced Aug. 2019 it was suspending operations because of what it called “a significant change in financing,” although a small team remains in place to continue work on its Vector-R rocket.


Virgin Orbit  offered a long-term vision of using multiple planes flying from multiple spaceports to be able to deploy an entire constellation within hours. Virgin Orbit and its wholly owned VOX Space subsidiary are working on a system that calls for sending satellites to orbit on Virgin’s LauncherOne rocket, which is air-launched from a modified Boeing 747 jet. The air-launch system makes it possible to take off from any base that has a suitable runway, and fly around unacceptable weather if necessary to send payloads into a wide range of orbits.


In one example of a remote sensing system in sun-synchronous orbit, the entire constellation could be deployed in as little as 4.3 hours, assuming the company has six of its Boeing 747 carrier aircraft operating from three or four spaceports. Operating from a single spaceport, the constellation could be deployed in 8.9 hours assuming three aircraft and four-hour recycle times for the aircraft.


The lone contender in the DARPA Launch Challenge is a “space startup comprising industry veterans currently operating in stealth mode,” DARPA said. That company, believed to be Astra Space, as the company identifies itself in Federal Aviation Administration licenses, is working toward internal technical milestones, DARPA said. Astra Space conducted two suborbital launches in 2018 from Kodiak, Alaska, both of which were categorized as mishaps by the FAA.


The challenge ended in early March 2020 when Astra was unable to launch within the required time frame, resulting in no contest winner. “I was disappointed,” Master said. “I don’t know if I would say I was surprised because it was a unique challenge in that nobody had [ever] asked them to really develop a launch infrastructure that was indifferent to where they would be launched from, and a timescale that was really compressed.”


However, DARPA still sees a few commercial companies in the innovation ecosystem that have developed capabilities that are well aligned with Defense Department needs, he said.


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