Firefly set for inaugural test launch from Vandenberg

UPDATE: The Alpha rocket exploded 2.5 minutes after lifting off from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 6:59 p.m. PDT (9:59 p.m. EDT; 0159 GMT). The vehicle appeared to lose control and tumble moments before the fiery explosion. Firefly confirmed the failure in a tweet: “Alpha experienced an anomaly during first stage ascent that resulted in the loss of the vehicle. As we gather more information, additional details will be provided.”

Video credit: Everyday Astronaut / Firefly Aerospace

The first test flight of Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha launch vehicle could take off as soon as Thursday from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

The four-hour launch window opens at 6 p.m. PDT (9 p.m. EDT) Thursday, or 0100 GMT Friday. There is a 100% chance of acceptable weather conditions during the launch window, according to the weather team at Vandenberg, but conditions could be foggy.

The two-stage Alpha rocket is designed to loft up to 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms) into a low-altitude orbit, or up to 1,388 pounds (630 kilograms) of payload to a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) sun-synchronous polar 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.

Firefly moved in at the SLC-2W launch site after the final United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket took off from the pad in 2018.

In addition to upgrading the Delta integration building and support facilities at the site, Firefly installed a brand new launch mount and transporter-erector at the pad. The Delta 2 was stacked vertically on the launch pad, while the Alpha launcher is assembled horizontally, then rolled out and lifted upright for launch.

Last month, Firefly completed a static test-firing of the Alpha rocket’s four Reaver main engines at SLC-2W, following a simulated countdown in which the launch team loaded kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants into the vehicle.

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.

Firefly’s Alpha launch vehicle stands at Space Launch Complex 2-West on Wednesday. Credit: Gene Blevins / LA Daily News

Firefly says it expects to sell a dedicated Alpha launch for $15 million per flight.

The fully-assembled Alpha launch vehicle stands around 97.6 feet (29.75 meters) tall and measure nearly 6 feet (1.8 meters) in diameter.

Firefly says the size of its rocket — which can carry heavier payloads than Rocket Lab’s Electron or Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne — differentiates it from other prospective launch providers in the smallsat launch market.

Firefly Aerospace, headquartered in Cedar Park, Texas, 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.

Firefly’s other projects beyond the Alpha launcher include the Beta rocket, which will use upgraded engines 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 is also developing a second launch site would be located at the disused Complex 20 launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

For it’s first test flight, Firefly is carrying a suite of educational, artistic, and research payloads. The company offered free launch capacity on the first Alpha test flight through a program Firefly calls the Dedicated Research and Education Accelerator Mission, or DREAM.

The Alpha rocket take off from Vandenberg to target a 186-mile-high inclined 137 degrees to the equator. The unusual orbit, called a retrograde orbit because the rocket will travel against the Earth’s rotation, will require the Alpha launcher to head southwest over the Pacific Ocean on a track passing just south of Hawaii.

This map illustrates the unusual southwest launch trajectory targeted on Firefly’s inaugural test launch. Credit: Firefly Aerospace

The Alpha’s Reaver first stage engines will shut down nearly three minutes after liftoff, before the booster jettisons to fall into the Pacific Ocean. The second stage’s Lightning engine for a six-minute burn to reach orbit, followed by deployment of several several CubeSats and tiny “picosatellite” payloads.

If the flight plan continues, the Alpha rocket will attempt to briefly reignite its second stage engine about 54 minutes after liftoff. Then a drag sail developed by engineers and students at Purdue University will unfurl from the second stage to enable aerodynamic drag to gradually slow the spent rocket body’s velocity, before it eventually re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.