After a delay of several weeks due to technical issues, bad weather, and a busy launch range, Firefly Aerospace is set to try again early Friday to send its commercial small satellite launcher into orbit on a test flight from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California.
The first two launch attempts for Firefly’s Alpha rocket were scrubbed Sept. 11 and 12, first to allow engineers to evaluate a drop in pressure in the rocket’s helium pressurization system, then by unfavorable weather at the California spaceport. Firefly then bypassed a launch opportunity Sept. 19 due to the forecast of bad weather, and United Launch Alliance had several days booked with the Western Range at Vandenberg for the liftoff of a Delta 4-Heavy rocket Sept. 24 with a classified U.S. government spy satellite.
The weather and scheduling constraints bumped Firefly’s next launch opportunity to Friday, when the company has a nearly two-hour launch window opening at 12:01 a.m. PDT and closing at 2 a.m. PDT (3:01-5:00 a.m. EDT; 0701-0900 GMT).
Firefly’s 96.7-foot-tall (29.5-meter) Alpha launch vehicle is standing on Space Launch Complex 2-West at Vandenberg, located roughly 140 miles (225 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles on California’s picturesque Central Coast. The launch Friday will be the second flight of Firefly’s expendable Alpha rocket, following a failure on a test flight last September caused by the premature shutdown of one of the booster’s four main engines.
Based in Cedar Park, Texas, Firefly has given the second Alpha launch the nickname “To The Black.” The goal this time is to reach space.
Engineers determined that an electrical issue prompted one of the four kerosene-fueled Reaver engines on the first stage to shut down about 15 seconds after liftoff last year. Propellant flow valves closed to terminate thrust from the engine, but the rocket’s other three engines continued powering the rocket into the sky.
The rocket climbed slower than anticipated, its guidance computer commanding the remaining Reaver powerplants to swivel their nozzles to keep the launcher on course without the help of the dead engine. The Alpha launcher finally lost control as it reached supersonic speed. The range safety team at Vandenberg sent a command to terminate the flight about two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, and the rocket exploded.
Firefly is now back on the SLC-2W launch pad at Vandenberg, the former West Coast home of United Launch Alliance’s Delta 2 rocket. There are seven small satellites mounted to the top of the Alpha launcher, which completed a test-firing of its four engines on the pad last month.
The two-stage Alpha rocket is designed to loft up to 2,580 pounds (1,170 kilograms) into a low-altitude orbit, or up to 1,642 pounds (745 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.
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.
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. The rocket first and second stages measure about 6 feet, or 1.8 meters, in diameter, and the payload fairing is slightly wider at 6.6 feet (2 meters).
Firefly says expects to sell a dedicated Alpha launch for $15 million per flight, and believes 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 was previously named Firefly Space Systems before entering bankruptcy. The renamed company emerged from bankruptcy proceedings in 2017 under new ownership led by Noosphere Ventures, a Menlo Park, California-based firm led by Ukrainian-born managing partner Max Polyakov.
The company underwent another ownership shakeup earlier this year when AE Industrial Partners purchased Noosphere’s stake. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States requested Polyakov sell his share of Firefly ownership, and the U.S. government limited Firefly’s operations at Vandenberg until the sale was completed, the company said in a statement last year.
With Polyakov’s Noosphere Ventures out of the picture, Firefly resumed launch operations at Vandenberg ahead of the second Alpha test flight.
While Firefly’s near-term focus is on the Alpha rocket program, the company last month announced an agreement with Northrop Grumman to develop and build engines for an upgraded version of the Antares rocket used to launch resupply missions to the International Space Station. Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket is currently powered by Russian-made engines, and the company only has engines for two more Antares flights before needing to transition to a U.S.-made propulsion system.
Firefly is also a partner with NASA to develop a robotic lunar lander to transport science experiments to the moon.
The company is planning a second launch site that would be located at the disused Complex 20 launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
For its second demonstration mission, Firefly’s Alpha rocket will attempt to launch on a similar mission profile to the one it was supposed to fly on the failed test flight last year. It will 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.
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 a parking orbit, followed by a coast halfway around the world before reigniting the engine about 54 minutes after liftoff.
If all goes according to plan, the rocket will deploy seven CubeSats and tiny “picosatellite” payloads about an hour into the mission.
The satellites on the Alpha rocket set for launch Friday include an CubeSat called Serenity 2 developed by Teachers in Space, a non-profit organization with a mission to excite students about science, technology, engineering and mathematics by providing their teachers with space science experiences and industry connections. While the primary purpose of the 3.7-pound (1.7-kilogram) Serenity 2 CubeSat is to support education, the nanosatellite also carries instruments to collect data on atmospheric pressure, temperature and radiation.
The TechEdSat 15 CubeSat developed at NASA’s Ames Research Center is also aboard the Alpha rocket to test a drag brake mechanism that could help target the re-entry of small satellites. The deployable “eco-brake” is designed to generate drag and accelerate the deorbit of a small spacecraft. The system flying on the 9.1-pound (4.1-kilogram) TechEdSat 15 spacecraft is intended to survive higher temperatures, up to several hundred degrees, and “will demonstrate the next step forward in nanosatellites’ ability to target an Earth entry point,” Firefly said.
“The exo-brake is a device that applies drag in Earth’s exosphere — the uppermost reaches of the atmosphere — to slow the speed of a satellite’s descent and change its direction,” Firefly said. “This experiment will permit the satellite to survive closer-to-peak heating, maintain telemetry, and assess the dynamics as the system enters the top of the atmosphere.”
Five smaller “picosats” are also mounted in a deployer on Firefly’s Alpha rocket. Here’s a description of those payloads from Firefly’s press kit.
• The GENESIS-L and GENESIS-N payloads from from AMSAT Spain will launch on a technology demonstration mission for amateur radio operators, and test a micro sub-joule pulsed plasma thruster.
• The FOSSASAT-1B picosat from Fossa Systems in Spain will test long range communications, an attitude determination and control system, and a low-resolution Earth imager
• The Qubik 3 and Qubik 4 payloads from Libre Space Foundation, based in Greece, will perform multiple telecommunications experiments.
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