Firefly’s Alpha rocket reaches orbit on second launch

KIHEI, Hawaii — Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha launch vehicle reached orbit on its second launch Oct. 1, more than a year after the vehicle’s first launch failed.

The Alpha rocket lifted off from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Space Force Base at 3:01 a.m. Eastern Time. The rocket’s upper stage reached orbit nearly eight minutes later. After a circularization burn, the upper stage deployed its payloads and Firefly declared “100% mission successful” approximately one hour and 45 minutes after takeoff.

Firefly originally attempted to launch Alpha nearly three weeks earlier, on September 11. Controllers interrupted the countdown one minute before the scheduled launch, which would have been at the start of a four-hour window. Firefly later said a drop in the supply of helium used to pressurize the rocket’s second-stage tanks caused the abort and ultimately abort the launch.

A second launch attempt the following day was weather-delayed, and Firefly then had to wait for improved weather and range availability before making a third attempt on September 30. This launch attempt saw the engines briefly ignite as the countdown reached zero, only to come to a halt on the bottom. Firefly later said the rocket went into “automatic shutdown” upon engine ignition, but did not disclose the problem causing the gumming.

The “To The Black” test flight carried several satellites to be deployed in a 300 kilometer orbit inclined at 137 degrees. The Teachers in Space – Serenity 3U cubesat is designed to collect basic flight data for use by educators. NASA’s TechEdSat-15 3U cubesat includes several technology demonstration payloads, such as an “exo-brake” intended to provide targeted re-entry of the cubesat. A PicoBus deployer carried six PocketQube satellites for AMSAT Spain, Fossa and Libra Space Foundation.

The Firefly Aerospsce Alpha fires up its engines for liftoff Oct. 1 from Vandenberg Space Force Base. Credit: Firefly Aerospace/Everyday Astronaut

Firefly launched the first Alpha 13 months ago. One of the rocket’s four first-stage Reaver engines shut down 15 seconds into flight, although the rocket continued to rise until it reached maximum dynamic pressure about two minutes later, causing it to plummet. Range security then detonated the rocket.

The company later determined that a faulty electrical connection caused the engine to shut down. The company has corrected that issue and made other changes to the manufacturing process, said Peter Schumacher, a partner at majority owner AE Industrial Partners, who served as Firefly’s interim chief executive this summer. “It’s about making sure that the second flight, the product that’s out there, is the absolute best product we can produce.”

Schumacher said in July that if the launch was successful, they would conduct another Alpha launch this year, carrying a set of NASA-sponsored cubesats under a Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) contract the company won in December 2020.

The company was excluded from the initial list of companies that received Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) awards in January for small satellite launches because the company was in the midst of a sale. On September 9, however, NASA announced that it had added Firefly to the VADR contract, citing the need for a vendor capable of launching payloads between 500 and 1,000 kilograms. “Firefly is the only launch vehicle supplier of this group that has completed development and conducted its first test launch of its Alpha Launch Vehicle,” NASA said in the procurement brief.

Schumacher said in July that the company was planning up to six launches in 2023 and was setting up production at its Texas factory to support that launch pace.

The launch came hours after the US Space Force’s Space Systems Command announced that it had awarded a launch contract to Firefly Aerospace for a space awareness mission called Victus Nox, using a spacecraft to be built by Millennium Space. The announcement did not reveal the value of the launch contract or the estimated launch date.

Victus Nox will be a reactive launch demonstration, building on the TacRS-2 mission in June 2021, when Northrop Grumman had 21 days to integrate and launch a payload on its Pegasus XL rocket.

With Victus Nox, the Space Force is aiming for a 24 hour call for launch. “What we have challenged this team to do, and what I see them demonstrating their ability to do, is to respond quickly to a real threat, with operational capability, using operational crews in operationally relevant timelines,” said Lt. Gen. Michael A. Guetlein, commander of Space Systems Command, in a speech Sept. 28 at the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies (AMOS) conference.

“In 24 hours, they can put together a satellite launcher, couple it, encapsulate it, launch it and put it into service, all in 24 hours, and they’re going to demonstrate it next summer,” he said. he stated about the upcoming Mission Victus Nox.

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