DARPA’s Launch Challenge Offers $10M Prize For Short-Notice, Rapid-Turnaround Rocketry

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Firstly, getting to space is really tough, that too on short notice and doing it again a couple of weeks later? That’s a huge ask. However, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the central research and development organization for the US Department of Defense is asking  as a part of its DARPA Launch Challenge.

It was announced at the 34th Space Symposium in Colorado. If the teams want to win the big prize $10M they have to take the payload to space within few day and do it soon again after.

Here’s how it goes down. Firstly, the team will have to pre-qualify to show that they have the ability to carry out this kind of task through a written explanation of their capabilities and a licence to launch. Qualifying teams will be rewarded with $400,000 each. Once a set of teams is confirmed (applications close in December 2018), DARPA will take its time… and then spring the launches on them sometime in the second half of 2019.

How huge is the payload? Does it need to be powered? Cooled? Does it need or provide data? All this is a mystery until few weeks before launch. For comparison, most launches are planned for years and only finalized months before the day. DARPA, however, will provide an “example orbit” earlier in 2019 so you can have a general idea of what to expect. Teams will not know where they’re launching from until just before. 

The team which successfully inserts the payload to the correct low-earth orbit will receive $2 million. But can’t take rest, as the next launch in the similar mysterious condition will have to take place within 2 weeks of the first. Teams that get their second payload into orbit in a correct manner will qualify for the big prize they’ll be ranked by “mass, time, and accuracy.” First place takes home $10M, second place $9M, and third place $8M.

DARPA says the rapid-launch competition “will accelerate capabilities and further incentivize industry to deliver launch solutions that are both flexible and responsive”, “The launch environment of tomorrow will more closely resemble that of airline operations with frequent launches from a myriad of locations worldwide” and further added, “the challenge will be run in close coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration, which is currently in charge of licensing commercial launches. Every team that competes will have to have an FAA license for their launch activities.