DARPA’s busy February: Rockets, robots and ‘Gunslinger’

Military Tech
Astra rocket

Crews work on the Astra rocket after it was delivered to a launch site in Alaska. (Astra / Twitter)

MYSTERY WIRE — A secretive rocket launch, a “flying gun” drone and underground robots have made headlines this month as DARPA — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — goes about its business.

Astra and the DARPA Launch Challenge

In a test that keeps getting bumped because of bad weather (now set for Saturday at 12:30 a.m. PST), secretive Bay Area startup Astra is on the clock with a launch from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska.

These launches aren’t like recent SpaceX, Starliner and Blue Origins launches, which were conducted out in the public eye, streaming on NASA.gov and other websites. These are defense projects, and while Astra has been more forthcoming lately, the veil of secrecy isn’t a surprise.

READ: Astra’s 1st flight for DARPA Launch Challenge set to fly Saturday

Astra’s “Rocket 2.0” is a two-stage, five-engine, kerosene and liquid oxygen-powered rocket that is small enough to fit inside a shipping container — portability is an important aspect of the program.


The War Zone reports on DARPA’s “Flying Missile Rail,” a system that would carry air-to-air missiles and would be launched like a drone from under the jet’s wing, after which they would fly off and engage aerial targets with their missiles.

The proposed $13.27 million project is part of the “Gunslinger” flying gun program.

READ: DARPA wants millions to design an unmanned ‘flying gun’ under its new Gunslinger program

In budget documents, the concept is described as a gun-armed missile — or maybe an expendable drone — that would be able to engage multiple ground- or air-based targets.

Robots that navigate on their own

DARPA sponsors a competition of technology that allows robots to navigate obstacles and extreme environments. This round, which concluded on Wednesday, took place in an unfinished power plant in Elma, Washington. The first event was in a mine.

READ: Robots autonomously navigate underground in DARPA Challenge

“The goal is to develop software for our robots that lets them decide how to proceed as they face new surprises,” said CoSTAR’s team lead Ali Agha of JPL. “These robots are highly autonomous and for the most part make decisions without human intervention.”

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