The U.S. military research lab that funds some of the most important (and terrifying) scientific work out there is scrapping a program that would have launched satellites with fighter jets, after the next-generation rocket fuel involved turned out to be a little too explosive.
DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, had tasked contractors at Orbital ATK and Boeing to help it develop a system to launch small satellites with 24 hours notice for less than $1 million.
The team came up with a rocket utilizing a new propellant called NA-7 and designed to be launched from the bottom of an F-15 jet fighter. It hopes to test the program, called Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA), multiple times in 2016.
But unmanned tests conducted this year revealed a problem with the new, high-powered fuel, which attempts to combine in one fluid the two components in liquid rocket engines—an oxidizer and the fuel itself, typically liquid oxygen and a kind of high-grade kerosene. Two on-the-ground tests of the new fuel resulted in explosions, according to officials interviewed by Space News, and the substance was determined to be too volatile to be carried by a piloted plane.
“From a performance standpoint it’s still great but from a safety standpoint you have to work that out,” Brad Tousley, who supervises the program for DARPA, told Space News. “As of present, we’ve stopped planning for any launches.”
The team behind the research intends to keep developing the propellant, possibly for ground-based launches. A unified rocket fuel would…