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Astra misses out on winning $2M from DARPA

Astra rocket on pad
Astra’s rocket stands on its launch pad on Alaska’s Kodiak Island. (DARPA via YouTube)

The once-stealthy California company known as Astra came within 53 seconds of sending up a rocket to try winning a $2 million prize in the DARPA Launch Challenge today, but ended up scrubbing the launch.

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DARPA lets robots take over nuclear plant

DARPA Subterranean Challenge
 CSIRO Data61’s Brett Wood, checks the team’s Titan robot and piggyback drone just before a robot run in the Urban Circuit of DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

SATSOP, Wash. — Amid the ruins of what was meant to be a nuclear power plant, a robot catches a whiff of carbon dioxide — and hundreds of feet away, its master perks up his ears.

“I think I’ve got gas sensing,” Fletcher Talbot, the designated human operator for Team CSIRO Data61 in DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge, told teammates who were bunkered with him in the bowels of the Satsop nuclear reactor site near Elma.

Moments after Talbot fed the coordinates into a computer, a point appeared on the video scoreboard mounted on a wall of the bunker. “Hey, nice,” one member of the team said, and the whole squad broke into a short burst of applause.

Then it was back to the hunt.

The robot’s discovery marked one small step in the Subterranean Challenge, a multimillion-dollar competition aimed at promoting the development of autonomous robots to seek out and identify victims amid the rubble of an urban disaster area, or hazards hidden in the alleys of a hostile cityscape.

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Astra chases DARPA Launch Challenge’s prize

Astra launch
Astra launches a test rocket from Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska in Kodiak. (Astra Photo)

The DARPA Launch Challenge has begun, with a once-stealthy space startup called Astra aiming to launch two rockets from an Alaska spaceport within the next month and a half to win a $10 million grand prize.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency set up the challenge in 2018 to serve as an added incentive for private-sector development of a highly mobile launch system that the military could use.

At first, DARPA specified that two orbital launches would have to be executed over the course of two weeks from completely separate launch sites in order to win the top prize. However, program manager Todd Master said the plan was changed for logistical and regulatory reasons. Dealing with all the hassles associated with launches from widely separated sites “wasn’t really our goal in solving the challenge,” Master told reporters today during a teleconference.

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Boeing pulls out of DARPA space plane program

Phanton Express XS-1 space plane
An artist’s conception shows Boeing’s Phantom Express XS-1 space plane in flight. (Boeing Illustration)

The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency says Boeing is dropping out of its Experimental Spaceplane Program immediately, grounding the XS-1 Phantom Express even though technical tests had shown the hypersonic space plane concept was feasible.

“The detailed engineering activities conducted under the Experimental Spaceplane Program affirmed that no technical showstoppers stand in the way of achieving DARPA’s objectives, and that a system such as XSP would bolster national security,” DARPA said in a statement issued today.

In a follow-up statement, Boeing confirmed that it’s ending its role in the program after a detailed review.

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Echodyne helps DARPA with drone tracking test

Aerial Dragnet
DARPA’s Aerial Dragnet program tests techniques for tracking drone flights over urban terrain. (DARPA Illustration)

When the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency tested an “Aerial Dragnet” system for tracking drones over urban terrain last month, Echodyne lent a helping hand.

Echodyne — a Kirkland, Wash.-based startup backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates — provided the compact radar systems for DARPA’s tests during the week of Oct. 23 in the San Diego area, in conjunction with the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

The Aerial Dragnet exercise involved putting Echodyne’s EchoGuard and EchoFlight flat-panel radar systems on two large tethered aerostat balloons that flew as high as 400 feet, as well as on rooftops and towers around San Diego and National City.

DARPA then sent up several types of drones for the systems to detect and track. A key challenge involved being able to distinguish the drones from other objects in the background, including ground vehicles and birds.

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Launch Challenge finalists include mystery team

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

Three teams have qualified to go into the rocket-launching phase of the DARPA Launch Challenge: Vector Launch, Virgin Orbit’s VOX Space subsidiary … and a team to be named later.

In making today’s announcement, DARPA said the third team asked to stay anonymous for a few months more, for competitive reasons. That mystery team will come out of stealth in advance of the fly-off, which has been shifted to take place early 2020.

Like previous DARPA competitions, the Launch Challenge is meant to boost commercial innovation in a technological area of interest to the military — in this case, rapid and flexible launch capabilities.

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Rocket Lab launches DARPA’s R3D2 satellite

Rocket Lab launch
Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle rises from its New Zealand launch pad. (Rocket Lab via YouTube)

Rocket Lab executed its first launch of the year from New Zealand today, sending an experimental satellite into orbit for the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The company’s Electron launch vehicle lifted off from Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula right on time, at 4:27 p.m. PT March 28 (12:27 p.m. local time March 29). Launch had been delayed for several days — first, due to concerns about a video transmission system, and then due to unacceptable weather conditions.

About 50 minutes after launch, the Electron’s kick stage successfully deployed DARPA’s Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration satellite, or R3D2, into a 264-mile-high orbit..

“Mission success! Great kick stage burn and final orbit. Perfect flight!” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a tweet.

The 330-pound satellite is designed to unfurl a 7-foot-wide antenna to demonstrate how large structures can be packed within small satellite-size packages.

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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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Rocket engine scores a ’10’ in test for space plane

AR-22 engine firing
Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-22 rocket engine fires during a test at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. (NASA / DARPA Photo)

A rocket engine built from spare space shuttle parts — and the team behind the engine — passed a grueling 10-day, 10-firing test that sets the stage for Boeing’s Phantom Express military space plane.

“We scored a perfect 10 last week,” Jeff Haynes, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s program manager for the AR-22 engine, told reporters today during a teleconference.

The hydrogen-fueled AR-22 is largely based on the RS-25 engine that was used on the space shuttle and will be used on NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System. “We’ve upgraded the ‘brain’ for this derivative mission,” using an advanced controller, Haynes said.

Aerojet, Boeing and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, set up the 240-hour test between June 26 and July 6 to see whether the AR-22 could be turned around rapidly enough for a 100-second, full-throttle firing every day. The bottom line? It can.

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DARPA offers prizes for quicker liftoffs

DARPA Launch Challenge
The DARPA Launch Challenge is designed to provide more incentives for the development of flexible, responsive launch systems. (DARPA Illustration)prize

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Almost 15 years after a $10 million competition gave a boost to private-sector spaceflight, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is kicking off another launch contest with a $10 million grand prize.

The DARPA Launch Challenge — officially unveiled here today at the 34th Space Symposium — won’t send people to the edge of space, as the Ansari X Prize did in 2004. But it will introduce some new twists for the launch industry.

Contest rules call for teams to be given the full details about where and when they’ll launch, what kind of payload they’ll launch, plus what kind of orbit the payload should be launched into, only a couple of weeks in advance. And that’s just half the job. Teams will be required to execute another launch, from a different site, no more than a couple of weeks later.

The precise time frames for giving advance notice are still under discussion, but “I would measure the time scale in days,” Todd Master, program manager for the challenge at DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, told reporters today.

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