After a weeks-long delay due to technical issues, bad weather and a busy launch window, Firefly Aerospace is expected to try again early Friday to send its small commercial satellite launcher into orbit on a test flight from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California.
Firefly’s first two Alpha rocket launch attempts were canceled on September 11 and 12, first to allow engineers to assess a pressure drop in the rocket’s helium pressurization system, then to adverse weather conditions at the California spaceport. Firefly then bypassed a Sept. 19 launch opportunity due to poor weather forecasts, and United Launch Alliance had booked several days with the Western Range in Vandenberg for a Sept. 24 Delta 4-Heavy rocket liftoff with a spy U.S. government classified. Satellite.
Weather and scheduling constraints have pushed 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 2:00 a.m. PDT (3:01-5:00 a.m. EDT; 0701- 09:00 GMT).
Firefly’s 96.7-foot-tall (29.5-meter) Alpha launch vehicle sits at Space Launch Complex 2-West in Vandenberg, located about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles on the scenic central coast of California. Friday’s launch will be the second flight for Firefly’s expendable Alpha rocket, after a failure on a test flight last September caused one of the booster’s four main engines to shut down prematurely.
Based in Cedar Park, Texas, Firefly gave the second Alpha launch the nickname “To The Black”. The goal this time is to reach space.
Engineers determined that an electrical problem caused one of the first stage’s four kerosene-fueled Reaver engines to shut down about 15 seconds after takeoff last year. The propellant flow valves closed to end engine thrust, but the rocket’s other three engines continued to propel the rocket into the sky.
The rocket climbed slower than expected, its guidance computer ordering the remaining Reaver engines to rotate their nozzles to keep the launcher on track without help from the dead engine. Launcher Alpha eventually lost control as it reached supersonic speed. The Vandenberg Range Safety Team sent out a command to end 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 atop 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 fly up to 2,580 pounds (1,170 kilograms) into low-level orbit, or up to 1,642 pounds (745 kilograms) of payload to a 310-mile sun (500 kilometers). synchronous polar orbit. The Alpha is one of many small, privately-developed satellite launchers new to the market.
Firefly moved into the SLC-2W launch site after the last United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket lifted off in 2018.
In addition to upgrading the Delta Integration Building and on-site support facilities, Firefly installed an all-new launch pad and carrier-erector on the platform. The Delta 2 was stacked vertically on the launch pad, while the Alpha launcher is assembled horizontally, then rolled out and lifted for launch.
Four Reaver engines on the first stage will generate over 165,000 pounds of thrust at maximum power, and a Lightning engine on the second stage will produce over 15,000 pounds of thrust. The rocket’s first and second stages are about 6 feet, or 1.8 meters, in diameter, and the payload fairing is slightly wider at 6.6 feet (2 meters).
Firefly says it expects to sell a dedicated launch Alpha for $15 million per flight, and thinks the size of its rocket – which can carry heavier payloads than Rocket Lab’s Electron or Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne – differentiates it from other potential launch vendors in the small satellite launch market.
Firefly Aerospace was formerly called Firefly Space Systems before going bankrupt. The renamed company emerged from bankruptcy proceedings in 2017 under new ownership led by Noosphere Ventures, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based company led by Ukrainian-born managing partner Max Polyakov.
The company underwent another ownership shuffle earlier this year when AE Industrial Partners purchased Noosphere’s stake. The U.S. Foreign Investment Committee asked Polyakov to sell his share ownership of Firefly, and the U.S. government has limited Firefly’s operations to Vandenberg until the sale is completed, the company said in a statement. released last year.
With Polyakov’s Noosphere Ventures out of sight, Firefly resumed launch operations at Vandenberg ahead of the second Alpha test flight.
As Firefly focuses on the Alpha rocket program in the short term, 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 Earth. 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 it has to switch to a US-made propulsion system.
Firefly is also partnering with NASA to develop a robotic lunar lander to transport science experiments to the moon.
The company is planning a second launch site which would be located on 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 mission profile similar to what it was supposed to perform during last year’s failed test flight. It will target a 186 mile high slope inclined at 137 degrees towards the equator. The unusual orbit, called a retrograde orbit because the rocket will be moving against Earth’s rotation, will force the Alpha launcher to head southwest over the Pacific Ocean on a trajectory passing just south of Hawaii.
Alpha’s Reaver first-stage engines will shut down nearly three minutes after liftoff, before the propellant drops into the Pacific Ocean. The second-stage Lightning engine for six minutes to reach a parking orbit, followed by coast to half-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 Alpha rocket satellites set to launch on Friday include a CubeSat called Serenity 2 developed by Teachers in Space, a non-profit organization whose mission is to engage students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by providing their teachers with experiences in space science and industry connections. While the 3.7-pound (1.7-kilogram) Serenity 2 CubeSat’s main purpose is to support education, the nanosatellite also carries instruments to collect atmospheric pressure, temperature, and radiation data.
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 deorbiting 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 in the ability of nanosatellites to target an Earth entry point,” Firefly said.
“Exo-brake is a device that applies drag in Earth’s exosphere – the uppermost parts of the atmosphere – to slow a satellite’s rate of descent and change its direction,” Firefly said. “This experiment will allow the satellite to survive near-peak warming, maintain ranging, and assess 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 is a description of these payloads from the Firefly press kit.
• AMSAT Spain’s GENESIS-L and GENESIS-N payloads will be launched as part of a technology demonstration mission for amateur radio operators and will test a micro-subjoule 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 Libre Space Foundation’s Qubik 3 and Qubik 4 payloads, based in Greece, will perform multiple telecommunications experiments.
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