There's a $13 million prize for anyone who can give the US an edge in the coming battle for space supremacy

George Rose/Getty ImagesA SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base lights up the early morning sky.

The real space race is on, and there’s a $US10 million ($AU13 million) prize for whoever wins it.

US Department of Defense research arm DARPA is offering the cash to qualified teams which will compete for prizes in late 2019.

The top prize will go to the team that can give the US a crucial edge as international attention turns to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) as a critical frontier.

DARPA notes that “the commercial small-launch (10kg-1000kg) industry has embraced advances in manufacturing, micro-technologies, and autonomous launch/range infrastructure” and “seeks to leverage this expertise to transform space system development for the nation’s defense”.

“Frequent, flexible, and responsive launch is key to this transformation,” it says.

Competitors in the DARPA Launch Challenge will need to obtain FAA licences for all their launch activity.

Once they’re in, teams will be told the location of the first launch site with just a few weeks notice. The exact details of the payload will be given out with just a few days notice.

Once they successfully deliver their payload to LEO, the teams will get details of the second launch site, and again have just days to successfully deliver a second payload to LEO.

The final ranking for the top three prizes will depend on speed, payload, mass, and orbit accuracy.

DARPA Launch Challenge program manager Todd Master says current launch systems were still stuck “in an era when each space launch was a national event”.

“The launch environment of tomorrow will more closely resemble that of airline operations — with frequent launches from a myriad of locations worldwide.”

A competitors’ day with representatives from DARPA and the FAA will be held in Los Angeles on May 23.

More details about the challenge can be found here.

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