Three teams will compete for millions in DARPA's rocket launch challenge

One mystery competitor wishes to remain anonymous.

Despite all of the advancements in space travel, rocket launches are still hindered by the fact that they take months, if not years, to plan and execute. Because that could slow vital military operations, DARPA created the Launch Challenge: a call for commercial companies to prove they can get rockets into space quickly and on short notice. Now the three finalists have been selected for the next phase of the challenge.

Sometime in early 2020, Vector Launch, VOX Space and a third, anonymous competitor will attempt to blast their rockets into low-Earth orbit, twice in a matter of weeks. They won't know where they're going to launch from, the orbit they'll travel or the payload they're expected to carry until shortly before the mission. And they'll have to use minimal infrastructure.

VOX Space, a subsidiary of Virgin Orbit, will air-launch its rocket from a modified Boeing aircraft. While Vector plans to use its flexible launch site technology. We won't know more about the third competitor until closer to the mission. (Though, based on the DARPA photo above, we might guess that it's Stealth Space Company.) Each of the teams has received $400,000. If they complete the first launch, they'll each receive a $2 million prize, and if they complete the second, they'll be ranked and eligible to receive $10 million, $9 million and $8 million, respectively.

Those incentives show how important this is to DARPA. The agency wants to transform the way the military uses space and hopes, one day, planning space travel will be as quick and painless as air travel. The goal of this challenge is to prove that could be possible.