DARPA is zeroing in on Launch Challenge

Rocket launches
An artist’s conception shows rockets lifting off from an oceanside launch complex. (DARPA Illustration)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Federal Aviation Administration are winnowing down 18 pre-qualified teams for the DARPA Launch Challenge, a competition with a $10 million grand prize that’s aimed at boosting America’s rapid-response launch capabilities.

The challenge, modeled after the autonomous-vehicle races that DARPA sponsored more than a decade ago, will require teams to send payloads into orbit at short notice. The qualified teams won’t know where they’re supposed to launch from until about a month before the scheduled launch, and they won’t get their payload and orbital specifications until two weeks in advance.

To earn the $10 million prize, the winning team will have to launch not just once, but twice within roughly two weeks’ time.

The identities of the teams that have been cleared for the contest can’t be revealed quite yet, said Todd Master, program manager for the challenge at DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. He explained that the recent government shutdown forced a delay in the licensing process at the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, also known by the acronym AST.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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