Video: Pentagon Wants F-15 Jets Launching Satellites into Orbit

ALASAThe Pentagon wants to launch satellites from a fighter jet as it seeks to lower the costs of sending Defense Department satellites into space.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is leading the project called Airborne Launch Assist Space Access, or ALASA. Bradford Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said earlier this month the agency plans to  execute the program’s first flight demonstration by the end of the year and then 12 orbital tests in 2016.

Engineers have designed a launch vehicle that can be carried under an F-15. The F-15 would carry the launch vehicle to a high enough altitude before the launch vehicle would separate from the aircraft. The vehicle would then use its own rocket boosters to leave the Earth’s atmosphere before delivering the satellite into orbit.

DARPA officials hope the program can deliver satellites under 100 pounds within 24 hours notice and for a price tag under $1 million.

The Boeing Company, which builds the F-15, is the prime contractor for ALASA.

About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to Military.com. He can be reached at mhoffman@tandemnsi.com.
  • William_C1

    From throwing missiles designed to destroy satellites into orbit (ASM-135) to throwing satellites into orbit.

    • John

      That is exactly how they are thinking.

    • S.Evans

      Would you rather waste the boosters?

  • Lance

    Why not the F-15 also carries the satellite killer missile why not launch them too? LOL

    • KSP tells me so

      It takes a lot more energy to get into a stable orbit than it does to reach something in orbit.

      • Dfens

        The rocket launched by the F-15 actually will take the same trajectory as the satellite killer takes. The only difference is that at the apogee of the first stage burn a second stage rocket will kick in to circularize the orbit. That’s pretty much the same launch profile they use for everything.

  • SwissFreek

    ASAT used an Eagle because of its climb performance. I sort of assumed the Strike Eagle didn’t have near the climb performance that the C-model had, but I guess it makes sense that it would at least be close.

    • FormerDirtDart

      Additional research has shown me they do intend to use the F-15E, as it will require no modifications to perform the launch mission. The launch vehicle will utilize hardware & software that is already compatible with the existing F-15E weapons systems.

      Additionally, the ASM-135 ASAT program utilized a F-15A as the launch vehicle.

      • James B.

        Worst case, they could use F-15Es specially stripped down to reduce weight.

        • Cameron

          An F-15E without its Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFT) strapped to the sides of it has a better power to weight ratio than a C model. The CFTs are removed as easily as removing any major ordinance they’re just hardly ever removed in practice because there’s no need for it to play the role of Air-to-Air fighter. Its actually a better air-to-air platform than a C when stripped of those CFTs and outfitted for air-to-air roles. This fact was kept under wraps for political reasons as the F-22 was being pushed through congress at the time and the Air Force didn’t want it to be popularly known that they already had an amazing Air-to-Air fighter with the E. To solidify the mentality of it not being an air-to-air platform, they moved all the FB-111 guys into the strike eagle from the start of the program to solidify its culture as a strike platform. Pretty interesting stuff really. Anyway, feel free to verify its better power to weight ratio (which would be the greatest determination of climb performance) just by looking up some of the specs. Also, google F-15E conformal fuel tanks and you’ll probably find a picture of them being removed. Its pretty neat!

  • sje

    I thought that the advantage, from a military perspective, was that its harder to detect and track something launched from a plane than from a fixed base.

    • guest

      A satellite doesnt care about the way its launched, unless it reaches a stable orbit with a regular position or progression it will fall out of the sky ( as it does eventually, for these low orbit vehicles)

      • Dfens

        There is some truth to what SJE says. If you launch from a fixed base it is much easier to predict the orbit trajectory.

      • sje

        Yes. But if you have a fixed base its pretty easy to start tracking.
        With F15 launch, you don’t know when its launched, where its launched, or its altitude. It could be in orbit well before you have a clear read on it, especially if it is small, stealthy, etc.

        • Flightmech

          A half dozen TAC Nukes can cripple our ability to launch satellites. But, how many hundred airports can support a F-15 and a few support aircraft?

  • ken

    Yes but can it destroy a Toyota?

    • maximilliangc

      Exactly !

    • gilbertc

      Not as well as the A-10 can.

  • jamesb101

    Read Dale Brown…..Anything IS possible…..

    • Old Dog

      Haha I was just going to post that. Flight of the Old dog was one of my alltime favorite. NERDSATS!

      • Xiamenbill

        NIRTS- Need It Right This Second, Dale gave it to us 20 years ago!

  • Nadnerbus

    So, for someone more knowledgeable: Is this a wartime stopgap type need? Small sized satellites launched into very low earth orbit can’t possibly be very long lasting before they either decay from orbit run out of juice, can they?

    • blight_

      I am envisioning a scenario where we put up a number of image acquisition satellites into random orbits. Want to observe something in a certain city in China? Fly the appropriate course, release satellite over target, hope you get data before shootdown.

      As it is, waiting for the NRO to put a keyhole into position may be iffy. And since the air force has stood up its space commands, putting the ability to launch microsatellites into the air force’s portfolio and connecting them to space command would allow for deploying satellites for various missions, just as we can do with UAV’s and manned aircraft.

      • guester

        This would give you access to other orbits as well. Currently there are only a few locations in the US you can launch satellites and that limits the orbits you can reach w/o major fuel expenditures. If you could launch from above nearly any friendly nation or body of water, you have a lot more options for non-standard orbits.

  • Tinto

    Some 55 years late. Way back in the beginning, two camps existed, heavy lift and sonic mother ship to put things in orbit. Van Braun and crew won out. Better late than ever, maybe if the other team had prevailed, we might be flying into space by now? Check out Paul Allen’s, mother of all mother ships. http://gizmodo.com/5867710/this-crazy-320-foot-wi….

    • Bob

      Thanks for the link. Fascinating stuff! Or should I say the “right stuff.” It’s amazing how much research, technology, and knowledge has been generated over the past few decades in the aeronautical and astronautical industries. Where governments once roamed, now private enterprise leading the way.

      • Ray

        With +90% Federal dollars.

        • Dfens

          The Apollo program got us to the Moon with 100% federal dollars. Are federal dollars suddenly bad then? Now guess how many times we’ve been to the Moon on a “cost plus award fee” contract?

      • blight_

        Governments “once roamed” because priorities changed. Now it’s bombs and circuses.

  • oblatt22

    Of course this is pound for pound the most expensive way to get into orbit. That why everyone else uses rockets.

    Yet another example of delivering less for a higher price.

    • FormerDirtDart

      Yeah, you’re wrong, as usual

      • oblatt22

        Nah your just ignorant as usual

        Costs about $1500/pond to get into LEO these days,
        Space X is aiming for $500/pound
        and this proposal $10,000/pound

        So you are out by a factor of 10 to 30 LOL

        • AAK

          There is no rocket current or proposed that launches with 24 hr notice. There is no rocket that launches a singular 100lb payload for the prices you quote, they are piggybacked with other payloads. This launch system has it’s place for the spooks.

        • Showman

          Just in case some one reads and wonders whether these numbers are accurate – they are not. In fact, the average cost for spacelift into LEO is right at $10,000 per pound. Space-X advertises the Falcon at around $4k per pound but they conveniently leave out certain costs that drives it much higher.
          So this proposal runs essentially the same as other spacelift, doesn’t require scheduling 2 years in advance, and can be launched from any airport that has more than 7500 feet of paved runway.
          Hmmm.

          • S.Evans

            It’s satellite launch weight is EXTREMELY limited.

            These are for nit-sats, usually low endurance observation platforms launched when a gap in satellite coverage over an area is intolerable given the operation needs of the military at the time.

      • gyfs

        http://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-launch-costs.htm

        Actually oblatt22 is right about the costs. Yet the strategical advantage in the project is huge. Being able to launch quickly and without notice is quite amazing.

        • Dfens

          Compared to what rocket that puts 100 lbs into low earth orbit?

    • steve

      Totally ignorant, shows a complete lack of knowledge on space launch. It’s actually very economical.

    • S.Evans

      Rockets are only cheaper when you can reuse the lower stages. THEN they have a fuel cost advantage.

    • Lee

      No, the F-15 launch would be cheaper for LOW-Weight packages.

  • Mark

    Seems like a pretty awesome idea to me. Load the satellite, climb to altitude, increase airspeed, enter steep climb, fire. I like it. Maybe you could fly into a contested area and launch a bunch of lower cost, expendable satellites with a customizable payload. This seems like it would happen much faster than assembling a new launch vehicle and waiting for a launch window (each time). Definitely cheaper.

    • Ray

      Speed and flexibility coupled with miniaturized technology sounds like a real winner to me.

  • KLP

    This is also a good response I think to satellite killer missiles, short of having satellites with a sophisticated self defense suite on board. A few sorties in a few days could temporarily make up for the loss of a satellite(s). It’s certainly more cost effective at this time then developing a recoverable launch booster (although I’m looking forward to that from SpaceX) when you can use a piloted launch booster that we already have.

  • BB

    They should use the F-35 JSF since it’s basically useless as a CAS aircraft until (IF) they get the gun operational. Even then the JSF will only carry 180 rounds.

    • William_C1

      F-35 is a multi-role fighter not a dedicated CAS aircraft. That doesn’t mean it won’t do CAS, F-16s and F-15Es do CAS all the time, but apparently CAS only counts if it is with a gun.

      • oblatt22

        Yes F-35 is bad at pretty much bad at everything. Its the first of a new generation of multi-fail fighters.

        • Dfens

          Unfortunately, you’re unwittingly spending too much time listening to Lockheed propaganda on the F-35, but none the less that airplane and the F-22 are too slow to do the same thing they are proposing to use the F-15 for.

      • James B.

        The F-35 doesn’t have the thrust-to-weight to do this (or conduct BVR air combat), but I’m sure that’s not what it’s designed for.

        • Dfens

          Right, it takes so much “thrust to weight” for BVR combat.

  • Patrick MONAHAN

    The Air Force should bring back the Titan IV rocket. Now there was a delivery system worth a discussion.

  • Dfens

    Yet another reason they shouldn’t have retired the SR-71. It could have put a satellite into low earth orbit at least 10 times larger than what the F-15 can put up. Hell, even the F-14 could do a better job at that than the F-15.

    • Tinto

      Respective to my original post, Heavy Lift vs Sonic Mother Ship. Think, what could be put into orbit with a SR-71 type the size of the B-70.

      • Dfens

        You’re thinking of something more like what Boeing wanted to do in the mid 1980’s: http://robotpig.net/__aerospace/tsto.php?page=1. Boeing tried to pitch that as their answer to NASA’s Advanced Launch System (ALS) in 1989 but NASA wouldn’t have it. They wanted a conventional rocket or nothing. The deal is, the faster and higher the mother ship goes, the more payload the second stage can take to orbit. These 2 stage to orbit concepts are much better than the shuttle because the fly back portion is the first stage not the final stage. No heat shielding required, no long term refitting. The first stage takes off horizontally, launches the payload module, lands, refuels, has another payload fitted, and takes off again.

    • guester

      SR-71 could not deploy anything without heavy modification. I had no hard points or other weapon locations to mount to. All it had were internal camera mounts which wouldn’t work for this or any similar application.

      • Tinto

        Not So! Check a little further, two were made with a hard point on top, to deploy a drone. One crashed, the other can be seen at the Boeing Seattle Air Museum.

        • blight_

          I suppose some semantics could be invoked to point out that the D-21 was launched from modified A-12’s and not SR-71’s. The launch was tricky, the ability of the drone to find its target was tricky, the ability to recover the film was tricky. Many points of failure that could be lain at the feet of the technology of the time, but still quite ambitious.

          • Dfens

            At Mach 3+ every damn thing is tricky, especially a separation.

      • blight_

        D-21 drones could be launched, but the procedure was high risk, and combined with the lack of ability to control the drones or retrieve their payloads. Ambitious for its time.

  • Cataldo

    This is the kind of solutions for which I admire the USAF, this is all about to preserve satellites links in harsh times. Long Life to F15.

  • GI dude

    What we need is a reusable space plane that can provide heavy-ish lift, and glide back to a landing like an airplane. We can call it…. I dunno… maybe something like “Space Shuttle” and it will save a ton of money and be really cool.

    • NMI

      You realize that said “space shuttle” as of the last ones used by NASA required the use of a big arse rocket?!?!?

      This would defeat the purpose of the USAF/Pentagon wanting to move AWAY from the use of said big arse rocket.

      • Dfens

        We never flew a bigger piece of crap than the shuttle. It kept us locked in low earth orbit for 30 years after the more successful Apollo program had already taken us to the moon. It clearly shows the difference between having NASA design their own rockets as they did with the Saturn V and having contractors design their rockets as Rockwell did with the shuttle.

  • Cliff Linsey

    I vote for the SR.-71

  • Yeager

    What happens to all of the extraneous parts which are shed in the launch process? Is the orbit low enough where they will soon fall back to earth?

    • blight_

      Everything falls to the ground and burns. Probably not best for use over major cities.

      I wonder when the Navy will want to get in on the satellite launching action. The stresses of being launched from a catapult versus being launched in a zoom-climb combined with boosters? Hmm.

      • Dfens

        The Navy doesn’t have an airplane that can do the same thing the F-15 can, not even when (if) they get the F-35. As I said above, the F-14 could have done the job better than the F-15, but those are all cut up now. If they choose the F-23 in their F-18 replacement program it would be able to launch one of these satellites, I think. I know the aerodynamics on the 23 are highly integrated, but I think not so much that it couldn’t do this job.

  • KenLand

    It should be able to parachute mice in Guam to kill the snakes.

  • John_B

    This sounds familiar. What happened to Pagasus ?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pegasus_(rocket)

    • LChoate

      Pegasus is a larger rocket with a dedicated L-1011 launch aircraft. It costs roughly $11 million to put a 1000 lb payload into orbit. It takes months to prepare the rocket, load it on the aircraft, and fly to its launch point. The DARPA concept is for a low cost, quick reaction launch of a small satellite from a borrowed F-15 aircraft.

      • Dfens

        Pegasus takes a long time to prepare and launch, plus it is highly unreliable and far more expensive than it should be. All typical characteristics of anything built by that bunch of idiots at Orbital.

  • dinkydow

    Use a RB-57-F,recently returned to NASA, USAF high fly -retired.

  • blight_
  • rtsy

    this looks like bad news for Space-X

    • Dfens

      Not at all. This is a good way to put 100 lbs into low earth orbit. SpaceX vehicles put anywhere from a couple thousand pounds to 40,000 lbs for the really big vehicle they’re working on. That’s a totally different market. Plus, the USAF is not going to be doing commercial work for communications companies and the like.

  • charles

    The SR-71 would have been a great platform to modify and use to launch small satellites, since it operates on the edge of space. Also the awesome B-52 could be used to launch several at once from 50k feet.