Tag Archives: DARPA

DARPA tests anti-terrorist radiation detection network

In an experiment testing a technology designed to detect the radiation from a terrorist-deployed small nuclear bomb, DARPA in October deployed more than a thousand volunteers in Washington DC to test a detector that can be carried in a backpack.

Recently, a geneticist was mysteriously abducted in Washington DC, leading to the US government deploying a small army of detectives to foil a dirty bomb plot. At least, that was the fictional scenario of a DARPA field test that saw a thousand volunteers equipped with smartphone-sized radiation detectors fan out over the National Mall in a radioactive scavenger hunt to test the progress of the agency’s SIGMA project, which is tasked with developing technology to combat nuclear terrorism.

Nuclear terrorism is one of the top nightmares of security services. Not only is the prospect of a dirty bomb involving radioactive materials dispersed by conventional explosives alarming, but tracking down illegal nuclear materials in an urban setting requires covering far too large an area for fixed sensors. Since 2014, DARPA has been working on how to produce a portable sensor array based on low-cost, high-efficiency, radiation sensors networked by smartphone networks to detect gamma and neutron radiation and evaluate the information in real time

According to DARPA, the SIGMA array was first tested in New York and New Jersey using 100 sensors. For the Washington test, 1,000 sensors were carried in backpacks by hundreds of ROTC cadets from the universities in the National Capital Region, midshipmen from the US Naval Academy, and DARPA personnel coordinated by the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START).

Developing technology that can find and catch a terrorist who is trying to deploy a nuclear bomb in an urban area is certainly a good thing. I can’t help worry, however, about some larger philosophical concerns. Putting aside the specific technology being tested, the infrastructure being developed here that will make it easy for the government to deploy thousands of volunteers to hunt down an individual makes me a bit uncomfortable.

DARPA pushes its Experimental Spaceplane program forward

The competition heats up: DARPA outlines its goals for its Experimental Spaceplane program (XS-1).

Key to the effort is DARPA’s recognition that since 2000 under the government’s EELV program, launch costs for the military had increased significantly, while the launch rates appears to slow.

According to DARPA’s presentation, the Pegasus, Minotaur, and Antares launch vehicles only fly one DoD mission per year at a cost of ~$55 million USD per flight.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 currently performs ~3-6 DoD missions per year at a contract price equal to or greater than $54 million USD per flight.

That price per flight then jumps dramatically for United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicle families – which currently perform about 8 DoD flights per year for a cost per flight in excess of $400 million USD. [emphasis mine]

ULA claims that they charge the Air Force an average of $225 million per launch. DARPA says it is $400 million. Either way, that is a lot higher than the $83 million that SpaceX charged for its first Air Force contract.

The article then provides a nice overview of the XS-1 program, which like NASA’s commercial space program is asking private companies to come up with the new designs and technologies rather than have the government try to do it. All DARPA is doing is laying out their basic requirements, fly 10 times in 10 days for less than $5 million per flight.

The program is now shifting to its second phase, which will call for actual construction proposals late this year, with the hope of test flights by 2019.

Phase 2 begins in DARPA spaceplane program

The competition heats up: DARPA is about to start asking for proposals for the second phase of its XS-1 spaceplane program.

In Phase 1 of XS-1, DARPA sought to evaluate the technical feasibility and methods for achieving the program’s goals. To achieve that, it awarded prime contracts to three companies, each working in concert with a commercial launch provider: The Boeing Company (working with Blue Origin, LLC); Masten Space Systems (working with XCOR Aerospace); and Northrop Grumman Corporation (working with Virgin Galactic). Phases 2 and 3 will be competed as a full and open Program Solicitation mandating an Other Transaction Authority (OTA) agreement with the expectation of a single resulting award. Cost share is expected.

The primary goal is to build a vehicle that can fly ten times in ten days and put a small satellite into orbit.

Changes in DARPA rocket projects

In its budget request for 2017, DARPA has dropped one of its low-cost reusable launch programs while asking for more money for another.

The XS-1 project, where three teams, (Boeing/Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems/XCOR Aerospace, and Northrup Grumman/Virgin Galactic) are trying to develop a fully reusable launch system, will got a boost from $30 million to $50.5 million. Meanwhile,

DARPA is ending the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) launcher program after budgeting $80 million for it over two fiscal years. ALASA aimed at developing a rocket that could place a 100 lb (45 kg) payload into low Earth orbit for less than $1 million per launch using an unmodified F-15 fighter. Tests indicated that Boeing’s mono-propellant had a tendency to explode.

DARPA awards phase 2 space plane contracts

The competition heats up: The second phase contracts in the development of a reusable space plane have been awarded by DARPA.

DARPA has awarded $6.5 million each to three companies for developmental design work, including Boeing (in partnership with Blue Origin), Northrop Grumman (in partnership with Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic), and Masten Space Science Systems (in partnership with XCOR Aerospace).

The requirements are that the plane fly 10 times in 10 days, reach Mach 10+, put a 3,000 to 5000 pound payload in orbit, and cost less than $5 million per flight. In this new phase, the companies are to deliver finalized designs by 2016, with prototype development to follow.

A compilation of robots falling down at the DARPA Robotics Challenge

More information here. It seems that on the dry run prior to the start of competition, not many robots fell over. Then on Day 1, when the competition was for real, a lot had problems standing up.

The impressive thing about these falls is that, although they look pretty bad, the robots were just fine (well, most of them). After humans got them back on their feet and gave them a reboot, the machines were ready to run again. Team IHMC’s Atlas fell twice during their run and it still scored 7 points (of a maximum of 8). Team MIT’s Atlas had a bad stumble out of the vehicle and also went on to complete most of the course. So it’s a good thing that robots are falling at the DRC Finals—that’s how we’re going to make them better.

“There’s certainly something ironic about watching thousands of people watching three hundredweight of circuitry and metal trying to sort out a doorknob.”

The 2015 Darpa Robotics Challenge (DRC) is underway, and you can watch!

The quote in the title gives a bit of the flavor, but this is cool engineering that will definitely have important applications in both disaster recovery as well as exploration in extreme environments.

DARPA awards contracts for XS-1 spaceplane

The competition heats up: DARPA has announced contract awards to three companies for the construction of its experimental XS-1 spaceplane, designed to take off and land like a airplane.

The contracts go to Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Masten Space Systems, and have them each respectively partnered with Blue Origin, XCOR, and Virgin Galactic. More details on the Boeing contract can be found here.

The description of the XS program is quite exciting:
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DARPA picks Boeing to build a test design of an air-launched satellite launcher.

The competition heats up: DARPA has chosen Boeing to build a test design of an air-launched satellite launcher.

This engineering research is in parallel with the airborne launcher research of Scaled Composites (on SpaceShipTwo) and Stratolauncher. When you add SpaceX’s effort to make its first stage reusable, you get a real sense where the future of rocket design is heading: rockets in which the first stage is entirely reusable, returning safely to Earth either by a horizontal or vertical landing.

DARPA opens the competition for awarding the first design contracts for a new experimental unmanned space plane, set to launch in 2017.

DARPA opens the competition for awarding the first design contracts for a new experimental unmanned space plane, set to launch in 2017.

DARPA has high expectations for the XS-1 program, which it hopes can eventually launch 3,000- to 5,000-lb (1,361 to 2,268 kilograms) payloads to orbit for less than $5 million per flight — and to do it at least 10 times per year….

DARPA officials laid out their broad vision of the robotic XS-1 vehicle in a press release issued in September: “XS-1 envisions that a reusable first stage would fly to hypersonic speeds at a suborbital altitude,” they wrote. “At that point, one or more expendable upper stages would separate and deploy a satellite into low-Earth orbit. The reusable hypersonic aircraft would then return to earth, land and be prepared for the next flight.”

But DARPA is leaving the specifics of the XS-1 system — which aims to provide routine, aircraft-like access to space — up its potential builders, Sponable said. “We don’t care if it’s vertical take-off, horizontal land, vertical-vertical, which brings in a lot of the entrepreneurs,” he said in the FISO presentation. “We don’t care if they air-launch it, air-tow it, whatever. So we’ve left all those wide open.”

This DARPA program dovetails nicely with NASA commercial manned space program, as well as the emerging suborbital tourist industry. The combination should energize the reusable launch market quite effectively.

A close look at another government program to try to lower the cost to orbit.

A close look at another government program to try to lower the cost to orbit.

The latest program is know as the Experimental Spaceplane — or XS-1. The objective “is to demonstrate a reusable first stage launch vehicle capable of carrying and deploying an upper stage that inserts 3,000 to 5,000 lb. payloads into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), designed for less than $5M per launch for an operational system.” The system has to be able to perform with aircraft-like operations. And demonstrate the ability to fly 10 times in 10 days. It needs to reach Mach 10 at least once. And provide the basis for next-generation launch services and “global reach hypersonic and space access aircraft.”

Forgive me if I am skeptical. Despite DARPA’s reasonable success (It helped make possible SpaceX’s Merlin engine), these government efforts generally fail because they are unattached to the prime reasons for lowering cost: competition and profits. Consider this very accurate historical summary in the article above:

In the era of bell bottoms and Richard Nixon, there was the space shuttle. When Ronald Reagan ruled the roost, all hope rested in the National Aerospace Plane. During the Bill Clinton era, there were the X-33 and Venture Star. In Barack Obama’s first term, the Air Force pursued its Reusable Booster System (RBS).

Five programs. One objective: to radically reduce the cost to orbit. More than $14 billion spent on development. And the result? A super expensive shuttle program. Four vehicles that never flew. And access to space just kept getting more expensive.

Only when every effort in the aerospace industry is focused on making itself more competitive will we see the kinds of technical advancements this new DARPA program wishes to achieve.

DARPA has released some details about last summer’s HTV-2 hypersonic test flight.

DARPA has released some details about last summer’s HTV-2 hypersonic test flight.

An unmanned hypersonic glider likely aborted its 13,000 mph flight over the Pacific Ocean last summer because unexpectedly large sections of its skin peeled off, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said Friday.

DARPA has launched a program to use airplanes as the launchpad for putting satellites in orbit

DARPA has launched a program to use airplanes as a launchpad for putting satellites in orbit.

The Pentagon’s research agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), also anticipates slashing small satellite payload costs from more than $30,000 per pound to less than $10,000 per pound — making such launches three times cheaper. . . . DARPA wants the program to demonstrate at least 12 launches of 100-pound payloads to low Earth orbit, with each launch costing about $1 million. Launches could start as soon as 2015, according to DARPA’s official announcement of the program on Nov. 4.

At first glance this appears to be good news for Orbital Sciences and its Pegasus rocket, the only commercial launch system that has successfully put satellites into orbit using a commercial L1011 airplane as its first stage. At the same time, however, it appears DARPA is pushing for new technology to lower costs below what Orbital charges, meaning the game is open to anyone.

Some questions about today’s hypersonic test flight

Here are some additional stories describing today’s test flight of the Hypersonic Test Vehicle.

I have several questions, and no answers: