DARPA developing microsat constellation orbited with air-launch system
December 19 2012 05:16:00 PM |
DARPA is planning a constellation of 24 micro-satellites (~20kg range) each with 1 meter imaging resolution: Darpa Plans Smallsat Imaging Constellation - Aviation Week.
The satellites would be launched via a system developed by another DARPA program:
Darpa’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program is developing the booster to launch the SeeMe satellites quickly and affordably. Alasa is to be air-launched at short notice from a tactical fighter or business jet with minimal modification to the aircraft.
The goals of the launch system and constellation are tied together:
A major challenge of the SeeMe program will be enabling affordable, “non-continuous” production to meet the $500,000 unit-cost target for imaging satellites produced on demand, on a timeline of 90 days from order to launch.
The Alasa program is targeting a $1 million per flight launch cost for a sub-100-lb. satellite. SeeMe satellites could be launched in batches in larger boosters, but “we need an Alasa-class vehicle to be affordable,” Gricius says.
It's great to see support for development of low cost launch and satellite systems. However, I wonder if this is the most cost-effective way to obtain such systems. The DARPA approach is usually to support development of a particular technology (e.g. ALASA and SeeMe) to gain a general capability (e.g. low cost responsive launch and low cost small sat imaging). An alternative approach would be to start with the general capability desired and then invite a competition among particular technologies to gain that capability. (DARPA's highly successful Grand Challenge for robotic cars in fact took this approach.)
There are, for example, a number of commercial efforts to provide low cost responsive launch of small sats. These include, for example, the Virgin Galactic LauncherOne and XCOR Lynx Mk. III, NASA's Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge had numerous entrants but this program was recently canceled, apparently due in part to perceived competition with ALASA. How DARPA knows for certain that the ALASA approach is more cost-effective than these competitors has not been explained.
Similarly, there are low cost imaging constellations in development, e.g. Skybox Imaging, that might provide similar capabilities as SeeMe or at least demonstrate that they could provide for a specialized constellation like SeeMe if paid to do so. DARPA should make sure that the SeeMe constellation does not subsidize competition to commercial ventures in progress.
Clark S. Lindsey10th January 2013 9:11pm