The US military is looking to transform its space launch capabilities in order to enable a planned space force to quickly launch small missions as needed.

The Launch Challenge project, which is being enacted through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is looking to “fundamentally shift military space capabilities to enable on-demand, flexible and responsive launch of small payloads,” according to the agency.

Having past its qualification stage, the DARPA Launch Challenge will now see the three companies competing for in the challenge launch payloads into low-Earth orbit over the next few weeks.

However, they won’t know exactly what the payload is or the precise nature of the intended orbit until a matter of days before the launch, in order to replicate the responsive approach the agency is attempting to create.

The competitors include Vector Launch, Virgin Orbit-owned VOX Space and a third as-yet-unnamed company, who are competing for prizes in excess of $30m.

Making the US military space force responsive

The project represents a fundamental shift in the military approach to space, shedding light on the potential approach of the US military space force proposed by President Donald Trump.

“Today, most military and government launches are national events that are planned years in advance and require large, fixed infrastructure,” explainedTodd Master, the program manager for the DARPA Launch Challenge in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office.

“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.”

This desire for a flexible approach is behind the decision to challenge commercial companies to develop solutions, rather than rely on in-house capabilities.

“There’s a real benefit to making use of something already in development in the commercial market, and offering incentives to modify systems and approaches to favour responsiveness and flexibility versus just favouring high cadence for commercial customers,” said Master.