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Astra: DARPA's Launch Challenge default winner

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posted on Feb, 3 2020 @ 06:49 PM
Bloomberg news

... The Pentagon’s R&D arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, made Astra one of three finalists in a contest called the Launch Challenge. The terms: Whichever startup could send two rockets from different locations with different payloads within a few weeks of each other would win $12 million.

Astra is the only finalist still in the running. Virgin Orbit, part of billionaire Richard Branson’s spaceflight empire that’s been working on its rocket for about a decade, has withdrawn from the contest. Vector Launch Inc., the third finalist, filed for bankruptcy in December. That’s left Astra in a competition against itself and physics, which may be why Kemp, a relentless ball of confident energy who dresses in head-to-toe black, is uncharacteristically trying to set modest expectations for the Kodiak launch.
The jumbo end of the market centers on rockets that fly roughly once a month and cost $60 million to $300 million per launch, typically carrying tons of cargo. Astra says its daily launches, meant to carry about 450 pounds of cargo to orbit, will be pitched to the dozens of companies making a new breed of small satellites, such as Planet Labs, Spire Global, and Swarm Technologies.

An expose of sorts for a very quiet company. Interesting read. Basically aiming for the small sat market with affordable launch prices (~$2.5M) and flexible/rapid schedule. And of course the DOD and other letter agencies would be eager customers if all works well.

posted on Feb, 3 2020 @ 08:09 PM
Yes, this is an interesting story. One of the founders of Astra is a friend and colleague of mine, as is Will Marshall, one of the founders of Planet Labs. Both of those companies came out of an informal incubator group at NASA Ames Research Center, where I worked. A few years ago, when I was working for Planet (after retiring from NASA) we were following Astra's progress pretty closely, since they would potentially be a supplier of launches for Planet. Getting the use of the Navy's old engine test cells at Alameda was a masterstroke of genius. I watched one of their first full duration, full power tests a couple of years ago and it was astonishing that nobody in the neighborhood even knew it happened.

The market niche they are going for is the ability to put one of their rockets in a standard 40 foot shipping container, ship it to almost anywhere, and launch it on short notice. That is something that the military and TLAs would want; everyone else--maybe not so much. I was talking to Will at Thanksgiving and he was telling me there were then about 300 startups worldwide claiming that they are all developing small launchers in this category. 300! I think there is room in the market for maybe 2 or 3 to survive.

Many users will be perfectly happy to launch from fixed launch sites (like New Zealand, Kwaj, etc. and don't necessarily need quick reaction launches. For those, Rocket Lab is a very good choice since they are going for reliability. And, Rocket Lab is moving in the direction of reusability, the same way that SpaceX did, and that could bring their cost per pound of payload to orbit down by a lot--maybe less than Astra's.

On the other hand, as I said, many government users will be willing to pay a premium to launch when and where they want, on short notice. For them, Astra could be a good choice. And it may not be practical to incorporate full reusability of the launcher into a vehicle that could launch from anywhere (because then you would have to be able to recover from anywhere).

So I think that Astra and Rocket Labs have a good shot at being viable because they kind of cover the waterfront of potential users, and they have a lead on most everyone else.
a reply to: RadioRobert

posted on Feb, 3 2020 @ 08:52 PM
a reply to: 1947boomer

Yeah -- I'm of the opinion that this is probably not commercially viable unless they get costs down even further. But I can see several agencies of the federal government interested in keeping this niche alive. As you note Rocket Labs has something under their belt already. It'll be hard to unseat them and carve out a commercial niche.

posted on Feb, 4 2020 @ 05:44 AM
a reply to: RadioRobert

*Many* people are watching this company closely.

For all the right reasons.

posted on Feb, 4 2020 @ 06:42 AM
I love this stuff.

There is a concern that isn't about the cool tech. I think these swarm technologies and the many new satellites will be candidates to help in creating a debris field that might make exiting Earth's orbit very difficult. I love the tech and am glad we have the ability. Seeing how many we put up these days, I can only imagine a debris field of metal and glass slamming into objects if something were to hit them and make them out of control.

We still need to develop cleanup methods besides getting them to fall back to Earth that is not a bad plan and get this better tech up there anyway. Swarms however, that just sounds like a future debris field we need to prepare to clean up when the owners lose control of the flight path.

Meanwhile let's enjoy what we can of the new ideas.

posted on Feb, 4 2020 @ 11:13 AM
a reply to: Justoneman

"Debris mitigation" is a very real concern . The good news is that because generally the lifespan of cube sats is short and the sensors small, operators are more than happy to be in lower orbits. This gets you closer to earth for better "views", as it were, and as such drag will kill most within a year.
If you are stuck piggybacking a cube sat with another larger payload, you might not have as many options, but I know Rocket Labs, for example, tries to stay under around 400 mi to stay compliant. Around that height it is the cutoff for the 25 year rule. They often hitch rides on the lower ISS resupply flights for this reason.
Dedicated inexpensive launch platforms for small sats should open up schedules and options that hopefully make debris mitigation easier and less likely to create a debris field. Larger (but still relatively small) satellites have thrusters and can decay their own orbit to altitudes where drag kills them off.

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