DARPA Hosts Rocket Contest for Speedy Space Deliveries

May 13, 2019

By Rebecca Heilweil

Three space launch firms, Vector Launch, Virgin Orbit, and one anonymous company, will soon race to launch parcels into space faster than ever. The competition is hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Department of Defense's research arm, and signals that the military has its eye on commercial space launch startups.

The rules are simple. The competing teams will learn the location of the launch, to be somewhere in the U.S., a few weeks before it’s scheduled, but what they’re launching ー and where it’s headed ー they’ll only know with a few days notice. The three companies then will each launch the small payloads into a low orbit of Earth.

The goal is to make the launch of relatively light parcels, such as small satellites, more flexible, resilient, and mobile. Each team will attempt two launches, which are anticipated to happen in early 2020. The top prize is $10 million.

“Today, most military and government launches are national events that are planned years in advance and require large, fixed infrastructure,” said Todd Master, the competition’s project manager, in a press release. “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.”

DARPA has long hosted competitions to encourage commercial firms to build new technologies, such as autonomous vehicles and mobile robots, with an eye toward their military applications.

“DARPA, and the military in general, for a long time, has wanted to be able to replace assets that they got damaged, stolen, or lost,” Jim Cantrell, the co-founder and CEO of the Arizona-based company Vector Launch, told Cheddar. “The government’s been trying to do it with their own money for decades, so here we are doing it commercially.” Cantrell was also an early member of the SpaceX team.

“It’s intended ー from the government perspective ー to augment the innovation that’s going on, and just to really give it a little spurt in the direction that’s of interest to DARPA and the military,” he added.

Last fall, Vector Launch secured $70 million in seed funding, bringing its total fundraising to more than $100 million raised, according to Crunchbase. Virgin Orbit, a spinoff of the Virgin Group’s spacecraft company Virgin Galactic, primarily focuses on launching small satellites. The mysterious third company has requested anonymity for the first few months of the challenge.

Vector Launch wants to distinguish itself from companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX, which are building larger rockets intended to transport humans, and other larger parcels, to space. The comparative advantage of Vector Launch, Cantrell says, is its mobile launch platform and smaller rockets, which are about 45 feet tall, that can send smaller payloads individually and more quickly.

“We are a different economic model. They’re large, reusable rockets to get their cost down. We’re small, mass-manufactured rockets,” said Cantrell, cautioning that these models could ultimately compete in the future. “They can both reach the same sort of cost-per-kilogram into space numbers, but they’re radically different from an application point-of-view.”

For full interview click here.