Firefly offering free launch for research and educational payloads

Firefly Aerospace conducted a 300-second qualification firing of the Alpha rocket’s complete second stage in April at the company’s test site in Central Texas. Credit: Firefly Aerospace

Firefly Aerospace is asking academic institutions, startup companies and the public to submit ideas for payloads to launch, free of charge, on the inaugural orbital flight of the company’s Alpha rocket next year from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The Texas-based launch company said the initiative to host academic and educational payloads on the first Alpha launch will promote education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math disciplines.

“We’re calling the flight opportunity the Dedicated Research and Education Accelerator Mission, or DREAM payload,” said Tom Markusic, CEO of Firefly. “We encourage educational institutions, startup space enterprises, or any other institution that has big space dreams to visit and tell us about your DREAM space payload.”

Groups interested in Firefly’s offer can read the company’s terms in this document.

Officials did not say how much mass and volume will be allotted to the educational payloads.

Firefly said the DREAM payloads will ride into orbit with an unspecified commercial payload. The identity of the primary payload for the inaugural flight of Firefly’s Alpha launcher has not been disclosed.

The two-stage Alpha rocket being developed by Firefly is designed to loft up to 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms) into a low-altitude orbit. The Alpha is one of many privately-developed small satellite launchers new to the market, and the kerosene-fueled rocket will initially launch from Space Launch Complex 2-West at Vandenberg, a military base around 140 miles (225 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles.

Rocket Lab’s Electron, which is already operational, Virgin Orbit’s air-dropped LauncherOne, and Vector Launch’s Vector-R rocket are among Firefly’s competitors in the dedicated small satellite launch market.

Artist’s concept of Firefly’s Alpha launch vehicle. Credit: Firefly

“‘Making Space for Everyone’ has been an essential part of Firefly’s vision and dream since the day we began,” Markusic said in a statement. “I’m proud to announce today that we’re following through on that commitment by opening a competition, to literally everyone, for the use of the excess capacity of our first Alpha launch.”

“All ideas are welcome – from a child’s drawing, to a university science experiment, to a startup company CubeSat – so we encourage everyone to propose their idea for a DREAM payload to Firefly for consideration,” Markusic said.

Firefly intended to take over the SLC-2W launch pad at the end of last year. The last Delta 2 rocket launch from SLC-2W occurred last September.

But delays in the handover of the pad from United Launch Alliance to Firefly have kept ground crews from outfitting the ground infrastructure for the Alpha rocket.

Les Kovacs, Firefly’s vice president of business development, said at an industry conference earlier this month that the first Alpha launch is scheduled for no earlier than the first quarter of 2020.

“We’ve been working tirelessly for the past few years to develop Alpha, a game-changing small satellite launch vehicle,” Markusic said. “And finally our first launch is within sight.”

Both stages of the 95-foot-tall (29-meter) Alpha rocket will burn a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen. Four Reaver engines on the first stage will generate more than 165,000 pounds of thrust at maximum power, and a Lightning engine on the second stage will produce more than 15,000 pounds of thrust.

In March, Firefly began hotfire testing of the integrated turbopump-fed first stage Reaver engine at a test site in Briggs, Texas. Engineers conducted a 300-second qualification firing of a full Alpha second stage — with a Lightning engine — at the Briggs test site in April.

Firefly Aerospace was previously named Firefly Space Systems before entering bankruptcy. The renamed company emerged from bankruptcy proceedings in 2017 under new ownership.

Noosphere Ventures, a Menlo Park, California-based firm led by managing partner Max Polyakov, now funds Firefly’s rocket development program. Markusic told Spaceflight Now earlier this year that Firefly is fully funded, with Noosphere’s backing, through the initial launches of the company’s Alpha rocket.

Firefly’s other projects beyond the Alpha launcher include the Beta rocket, which will be made up of three Alpha first stage cores combined together to haul heavier payloads into orbit. Firefly also has ambitions for a robotic lunar lander, a space tug powered by electric thrusters, and a reusable spaceplane.

Firefly announced in February that its second launch site would be located at the disused Complex 20 launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.