Firefly reaches orbit following successful demonstration launch from California – Spaceflight Now

Four Reaver kerosene engines power a Firefly Alpha rocket from a launch pad in California on October 1. Credit: Brian Sandoval / Spaceflight Now

Firefly Aerospace said its privately developed Alpha small satellite launcher achieved “100% success” during a test flight from California early Saturday, adding another supplier to the growing list of commercial companies that have successfully launched a rocket into orbit.

Saturday’s launch 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 an early main engine shutdown that sent the rocket out of control. There were no such problems 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; 07:01 GMT).

The 96.7-foot-tall (29.5-meter) Alpha rocket cleared the launch pad and rose high into the atmosphere, heading southwest of 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 watch the rocket lift off, showing a plume of hot exhaust from the Reaver’s four gas-powered engines.

The Reaver engines, designed and manufactured by Firefly, produced more than 165,000 pounds of thrust at takeoff. The engines cut off at an altitude of nearly 250,000 feet (75 kilometers), allowing the first stage of the Alpha launch vehicle to separate and fall back into the Pacific Ocean.

The single Lightning engine on the Alpha rocket’s second stage ignited seconds later to continue to propel the launcher into orbit. Lightning’s kerosene-fueled engine, also designed by Firefly, ran for five minutes and generated more than 15,000 pounds of thrust to accelerate to the previous orbit. The payload fairing of the Alpha rocket ejected during the second stage burn.

An infrared tracking camera showed that the launch vehicle and payload fairing fell off the Alpha rocket as it continued to descend. Firefly confirmed a timely shutdown of the Lightning engine nearly eight minutes after liftoff, and teams at launch control celebrated with applause and hugs as the rocket reached its preliminary orbit.

After traveling halfway around the world, the upper stage engine briefly re-engaged over South Africa to adjust its orbit to a more circular path around Earth. Minutes later, the rocket deployed its three payloads containing a total of seven small satellites, an event captured by a camera on the upper stage. Firefly tweeted that the mission was 100% successful.

Firefly, based in Cedar Park, Texas, has nicknamed the second Alpha launch “To The Black,” a nod to the company’s goal of reaching space.

U.S. military tracking data released later on Saturday showed the missile had reached a low orbit averaging about 150 miles (250 kilometers) above Earth at an inclination of 136.9 degrees to the equator. The unusual inclination of the orbit is retrograde, which means that the satellites move against the rotation of the Earth. Most orbital rockets are launched eastward, with the Earth’s rotation, or perpendicular to the Earth’s rotation, to reach a polar orbit.

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

Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Astra and Firefly are newcomers to the group, part of a new crop of private launch companies initially focusing on the relatively low-cost launch market for small satellites. But many of the companies have ambitions to develop large reusable rockets.

The satellites on Saturday’s Alpha rocket included a CubeSat called Serenity 2, developed by Teachers in Space, a nonprofit organization with a mission to get students excited about science, technology, engineering and math by giving their teachers experience in space science 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 has 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 braking mechanism that could help target the re-entry of small satellites. The deployable “eco-brake” is designed to create drag and accelerate the departure from orbit of a small spacecraft. The 9.1-pound (4.1-kilogram) system, which flies on the TechEdSat 15 spacecraft, is designed to survive higher temperatures, up to several hundred degrees, and “will demonstrate the next step forward in the ability of nanosatellites to target an entry point to Earth.” , Firefly said.

“The exobrake is a device that applies resistance in the Earth’s exosphere — the uppermost layers of the atmosphere — to slow down the satellite’s descent speed and change its direction,” Svetlyachok said. “This experiment will allow the satellite to experience near-peak heating, maintain telemetry and assess the dynamics as the system enters the upper atmosphere.”

Five smaller Picasats were also installed in the deployer on Firefly’s Alpha rocket. They are split together as a single payload that will later be deployed by each individual satellite. Here is a description of these payloads from the Firefly press kit.

• The GENESIS-L and GENESIS-N payloads from AMSAT Spain are on a technology demonstration mission for radio amateurs and will test the microsubjoule pulsed plasma thruster.

• Picosat FOSSASAT-1B from Fossa Systems in Spain will test long-range communications, positioning and position control, and low-resolution Earth photography.

• The Qubik 3 and Qubik 4 payloads from the Libre Space Foundation, based in Greece, will perform several telecommunications experiments.

Firefly’s Alpha rocket will launch on October 1 from Space Launch Complex 2-West at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. By Brian Sandoval / Spaceflight Now

The Firefly launch pad at Vandenberg is the former home of the West Coast United Launch Alliance 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 an all-new launcher and transporter assembly at the site. The Delta 2 was stacked vertically on the launch pad, while the Alpha launcher is assembled horizontally, then unrolled and lifted vertically for launch.

The two-stage Alpha rocket is designed to lift up to 2,580 pounds (1,170 kilograms) into low-altitude orbit or up to 1,642 pounds (745 kilograms) of payload to the sun 310 miles (500 kilometers) high. synchronous polar orbit. 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).

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

Firefly says it expects to sell the special Alpha launch at $15 million per flight, and believes the size of its rocket — which can carry a heavier payload than Rocket Lab’s Electron or Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne — sets it apart from other potential vendors. launches on the launch market of small satellites.

Firefly Aerospace was previously called Firefly Space Systems before going bankrupt. The renamed company emerged from bankruptcy in 2017 under new ownership led by Noosphere Ventures, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based firm led by Ukrainian-born managing partner Max Polyakov.

Earlier this year, the company experienced another ownership shakeup when AE Industrial Partners acquired a stake in Noosphere. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States required Polyakov to sell his stake in Firefly, and the U.S. government restricted Firefly’s operations at Vandenberg pending completion of the sale, the company said in a statement last year.

When Polyakov’s Noosphere Ventures shut down, Firefly resumed launch at Vandenberg ahead of Alpha’s second test flight.

While Firefly’s near-term focus is on the Alpha rocket program, last month the company announced an agreement with Northrop Grumman to design 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 it needs to switch to an American-made propulsion system.

Firefly is also NASA’s partner in developing a robotic lunar rover to transport scientific experiments to the Moon.

The company is planning a second launch pad to be located at the unused Complex 20 launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

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Follow Stephen Clarke on Twitter: @StephenClark1. Firefly reaches orbit following successful demonstration launch from California – Spaceflight Now

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