AirLaunch, LLC, and its team of contractors is one of four recipients of the DARPA FALCON contracts to develop concepts for a low-cost launch vehicle. QuickReach uses two liquid-fueled stages and deploys from the cargo bay of a C-17 or Antonov-124 aircraft. DARPA is expected to select a contractor no later than 2007 to further develop their concept and to conduct flight tests. Phase 2B will culminate with a Critical Design Review in the fall of 2006. Phase 2C anticipates a demonstration launch in 2008.
Valued at $17.8 million for a one-year effort, AirLaunch's Falcon Phase 2B contract enabled the company and its team of subcontractors to continue developing the QuickReachT small satellite booster. AirLaunch completed Milestone 1 of Phase 2B on January 18, 2006, with a successful second stage separation test. In 2005, Team AirLaunch completed Phase 2A on time and on budget with significant hardware and testing, including four engine test firings, a stage separation test, ground drop test, and a C-17 drop test in September 2005.
The Falcon program goal is to develop a vehicle that can launch 1,000 pounds to orbit with only 24 hours notice. AirLaunch's design achieves responsiveness by carrying its QuickReachT booster to altitude inside the cargo bay of an unmodified C-17A or other large cargo aircraft. The Falcon SLV program is ultimately aimed toward affordable space lift. The current price of launching a payload can be $20 million or more. Completion of the Falcon project should reduce that price tag to less than $5 million. The developing capability will give U.S. forces a huge advantage because of its affordability and flexibility. The affordability of the system is enhanced by its simplicity, according to DARPA. Since traditional rockets launch from the ground, a complicated and expensive rocket nozzle must be used to compensate for altitude variation.
Because the rocket is launched at altitude, it takes advantage of higher performing and extremely simple nozzles, which can be optimized for the higher altitude condition. Also, propane fuel can be self pressurized at that altitude, so no turbopumps or pressure feed systems are required to force propellant into the combustion chamber.
Another advantage to launching a satellite by air is the launch location and time is limitless. Currently, rocket launches are dictated by the location of launch facilities and a host of other factors including weather. By putting the system on a C-17, there is no limit to geographic location, and the aircraft can fly away from or above the weather.
The Airlaunch rocket can be flown anywhere in the world in any unmodified C-17. This capability can be used by other services, especially the Army, to put tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellites into low earth orbit. These tactical satellites could be used and controlled by combatant commanders, supplying the frontline warfighter with on-orbit ISR capability.
Soaring 6,000 feet above the sun-baked California desert, a pair of Edwards aircraft - a C-17 Globemaster III shadowed by a C-12 observer aircraft - carried out an unusual mission with an even more unusual cargo the morning of 29 September 2005. The rear of the aircraft yawned open, and at the prompt of "five, four, three, two, one, green light," the loadmasters released the restraints and a 65-foot rocket slid out the back of the aircraft and began its descent to the desert floor.
The drop was a test mission - the first of a series dubbed the Falcon Small Launch Vehicle, or SLV, program. This is a joint venture between the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force, designed to develop a new method of putting a 1,000-pound payload into low-earth orbit.
This first test was a successful drop of a mock-up, an inert version of a QuickReach Booster rocket designed and built by AirLaunch LLC. It was ballasted with water tanks to increase its weight to 50,000 pounds, about two-thirds the weight of an actual booster. To compensate for the difference in weight and the center of gravity, the aircraft was put on autopilot at the moment of the release. Fifty-thousand pounds going out the back is a pretty big change. The test vehicle is also the longest article ever dropped from a C-17. Another unique aspect of this mission was the method of getting the test vehicle out of the C-17. In most airdrops, the cargo is strapped to pallets, and the whole package is ejected from the aircraft. For this test, a system of rollers was developed to guide the inert rocket out of the aircraft.
This first drop, dropping a mock- up from 6,000 feet up, was designed to test the safety of the release system, according to program officials. Future drops would be at increasingly high altitudes, ultimately testing a drop of a live rocket, which will launch at altitude after leaving the aircraft. On March 15, 2006 AirLaunch LLC announced that it had successfully completed Milestone 2 of its Phase 2B DARPA/Air Force Falcon program contract, another step in the development of the company's QuickReachT small launch vehicle. AirLaunch conducted two second stage engine test fires within 24 hours at a test facility in Mojave, California. The two tests, performed on February 28 and March 1, 2006, signaled the beginning of the Phase 2B QuickReachT Stage 2 engine hot fire test program, that will lead to integrated second stage testing later this year. In Phase 2A, AirLaunch conducted four second stage engine test fires as proof of concept for its vapor pressurization (VAPAK) propulsion system using liquid oxygen (LOX) and propane. Vapor pressurization has been studied for many years, and these tests, along with the Phase 2A tests, show that VAPAK works with a LOX/propane system. The two engine test fires validated an updated, flight-like injector design and resulted in further confirmation of the feasibility of AirLaunch's VAPAK propulsion system. Each test lasted 13 seconds, with 2 seconds of ignition and 11 seconds of full burn, using AirLaunch's larger engine test stand that was built as part of the Phase 2B Milestone 2 activities.
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