Firefly reaches orbit in successful demonstration launch from California

Four kerosene-fueled Reaver engines power Firefly’s Alpha rocket off the launch pad in California on Oct. 1. Credit: Brian Sandoval / Spaceflight Now

Firefly Aerospace said its privately-developed Alpha small satellite launcher achieved “100% mission success” on a test flight from California early Saturday, adding another provider to the growing roster of commercial companies that have successfully fired a rocket into orbit.

The launch Saturday from Vandenberg Space Force Base was the second test flight for Firefly’s Alpha rocket, following a flight last September that was cut short by the early shutdown of a main engine, causing the rocket to spin out of control. No such problems occurred Saturday after the Alpha rocket lifted off from Space Launch Complex 2-West at Vandenberg at 12:01 a.m. PDT (3:01 a.m. EDT; 0701 GMT).

The 96.7-foot-tall (29.5-meter) Alpha rocket cleared the launch pad and climbed high into the atmosphere, heading southwest from Vandenberg, a military base about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles. The rocket disappeared into a veil of cloud cover over the California spaceport, but an infrared tracking camera continued to monitor the rocket’s ascent, showing a tongue of hot exhaust from its four kerosene-fueled Reaver engines.

The Reaver engines, developed and built by Firefly, produced more than 165,000 pounds of thrust at liftoff. The engines cut off at an altitude of nearly 250,000 feet (75 kilometers), allowing the Alpha rocket’s first stage booster to separate and fall back into the Pacific Ocean.

A single Lightning engine on the Alpha rocket’s second stage ignited a few seconds later to continue powering the launcher into orbit. The kerosene-fueled Lightning engine, also developed by Firefly, burned for five minutes and produced more than 15,000 pounds of thrust to accelerate into a preliminary orbit. The Alpha rocket’s payload shroud jettisoned during the second stage burn.

The infrared tracking camera showed the booster and payload shroud falling away from the Alpha rocket as it continued downrange. Firefly confirmed an on-time shut down of the Lightning engine nearly eight minutes into the flight, and teams in the launch control center celebrated with applause and hugs as the rocket reached a preliminary orbit.

After coasting halfway around the world, the upper stage engine briefly reignited over South Africa to adjust its orbit to a more circular path around Earth. A few minutes later, the rocket deployed its three payloads, containing seven small satellites in total, an event recorded by a camera on the upper stage. Firefly tweeted that the mission was 100% successful.

Based in Cedar Park, Texas, Firefly gave the second Alpha launch the nickname “To The Black,” signifying the company’s goal to reach space.

U.S. military tracking data published later Saturday showed the rocket reached a low-altitude orbit averaging about 150 miles (250 kilometers) above Earth, at an inclination of 136.9 degrees to the equator. The unusual orbital inclination is retrograde, meaning the motion of the satellites moves against the rotation of the Earth. Most orbital rockets launch to the east, with the rotation of the Earth, or perpendicular to Earth’s rotation to reach a polar orbit.

The successful launch catapulted Firefly into a small group of U.S. launch companies that have sent a orbit into orbit. Firefly joins SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Northrop Grumman, Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, and Astra in the U.S. orbital launch club.

Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Astra, and Firefly are the newcomers in the group, part of a new crop of privately-funded launch companies that initially are focusing on relatively low-cost expendable small satellite launch market. But many of the companies have ambitions to develop larger reusable rockets.

The satellites on the Alpha rocket launched Saturday included a 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 was 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” were also mounted in a deployer on Firefly’s Alpha rocket. They separated together as one payload, which will later deploy each individual pics satellite. Here’s a description of those payloads from Firefly’s press kit.

• The GENESIS-L and GENESIS-N payloads from from AMSAT Spain are on a technology demonstration mission for amateur radio operators, and will 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.

Firefly’s Alpha rocket lifts off Oct. 1 from Space Launch Complex 2-West at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. Credit: Brian Sandoval / Spaceflight Now

Firefly’s launch pad at Vandenberg is the former West Coast home of United Launch Alliance’s Delta 2 rocket, which last flew from the SLC-2W launch 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.

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 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).

The size of the Alpha rocket makes it the largest all-carbon fiber liquid-fueled launcher to ever soar into orbit. Rocket Lab’s Electron launcher also a carbon fiber vehicle, but it stands about two-thirds the height of Firefly’s Alpha.

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.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.