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Firefly’s Alpha rocket reaches orbit on second launch

KIHEI, Hawaii — Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket 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. The rocket’s upper stage achieved orbit nearly eight minutes later. After a circularization burn, the upper stage deployed its payloads and the Firefly declared “100% mission success” about. one hour and 45 minutes after departure.

Firefly originally attempted to launch Alpha nearly three weeks earlier, on September 11. Controllers stopped the countdown one minute before the scheduled launch, which would have been at the start of a four-hour window. Firefly later said that a drop in the supply of helium used to pressurize tanks in the rocket̵[ads1]7;s second stage led to an interruption and ultimately scrubbed the launch.

A second launch attempt the following day was delayed by weather, and Firefly then had to wait for improved weather and range before making a third attempt on 30 September. This launch attempt saw the engines ignite briefly as the countdown reached zero, only to shut down. Firefly later said the rocket went into “autoabort” upon engine ignition, but did not disclose the problem that caused the scrub.

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

Firefly’s Alpha rocket reaches orbit on second launch
Firefly Aerospce’s Alpha ignites its engines for launch on October 1 from Vandenberg Space Force Base. Credit: Firefly Aerospace/Everyday Astronaut

Firefly launched the first Alpha 13 months ago. One of the four Reaver engines in the first stage of the rocket cut off 15 seconds into the flight, although the rocket continued to ascend until it hit maximum dynamic pressure about two minutes later, causing it to overturn. Range safety then detonated the rocket.

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

Schumacher said in July that if the launch was successful, it would perform an Alpha launch later this year, with a set of NASA-sponsored cubesats through a Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) contract the company won in December 2020.

The company was left out of the first list of companies to receive Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) awards in January for launching smallsat because the company was in the middle of a sale. However, on September 9, NASA announced that it was adding Firefly to the VADR contract, citing the need for a supplier capable of launching payloads between 500 and 1,000 kilograms. “Firefly is the only launch vehicle vendor in this group to have completed development and conducted its first test launch of its Alpha Launch Vehicle,” NASA stated in the procurement document.

Schumacher said in July that the company plans up to six launches by 2023, and is ramping up production at its Texas factory to support that launch rate.

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

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

With Victus Nox, the space force is aiming for a 24-hour callup for launch. “What we’ve challenged that team to do, and what I see them demonstrate the ability to do, is to rapidly respond to a real threat, with an operational capability, using operational crews on operationally relevant timelines,” said Lt. Gen. Michael A. Guetlein, commander of the Space Systems Command, in a speech Sept. 28 at the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies (AMOS) conference.

“Within 24 hours, they can bring a satellite launch vehicle together, mate it, encapsulate it, launch it and put it into operation, all within 24 hours, and they’re going to demonstrate that next summer,” he said of the upcoming Victus Nox mission.

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