Firefly gets two new launch contracts; completes testing on 1st stage

Capitalism in space: Firefly announced last week that it has signed two new launch contracts even as it has completed testing on the first stage of its Alpha rocket and has shipped it to the launch site..

One of the two launch contracts was for multiple launches. As for Alpha:

The Alpha Flight 1 Stage 1 performed a 35 second static fire, including a full suite of thrust vector control maneuvers. Subsequently, a 15 second final trim test was performed, and the stage will now ship to Firefly’s launch complex at Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB).

Concurrently, the Alpha Flight 1 payload fairing successfully completed a separation test. The payload fairing separation system was designed and manufactured by Firefly. The system is operationally recyclable, allowing for multiple tests of the flight unit.

Firefly is also nearing completion of its Launch Control Center, Integration Hangar, and launch pad, including assembly of the Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) at historic Space Launch Complex 2 West (SLC-2W) at VAFB. Firefly’s TEL, built by Firefly’s design and fabrication teams in Texas and California, is being integrated and will soon commence ground system activation.

They are still aiming for the first launch before the end of this year.

Firefly completes static fire test of its Alpha first stage

Capitalism in space: Firefly Aerospace today released video footage showing the first successful static fire test of the first stage of its Alpha rocket.

I have embedded one of the videos, showing the test from multiple camera angles, below the fold.

The test is very impressive, and suggests strongly that they are on schedule to meet their target launch date for their first orbital test flight sometime between November ’20 and May ’21. It also suggests that this dark horse smallsat rocket company, once considered dead after filing for bankruptcy, might actually beat to orbit its closest competitors, Virgin Orbit and Astra. The latter two have already completed their first launch attempts, but both ended in failure.

Regardless, it appears the race between these three rocket companies is tightening. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if all three achieve their first orbital launches in the six to eight months.
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Next Starship test flight to go to 60,000 feet

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has decided, after two successful 500 foot hops using its fifth and sixth Starship prototypes, to forego further hops with those prototypes and instead test fly prototype number eight to a height of 60,000 feet, about 11 miles.

Starship SN5 and SN6 were set to become a tag-team, flying 150-meter hops to refine the launch and landing techniques that SpaceX has pioneered with its Falcon 9 rocket. However, with SN5’s hop proving to be a success, followed by a notable improvement with SN6’s leap to 150 meters a few weeks later, it’s likely SpaceX is now confident of advancing to the next milestone.

The company has applied for an FCC license to do the flight anytime from Oct ’20 to April ’21, with October 11th being the first available date.

In the meantime the company plans a pressure tank test to failure of prototype #7, probably later this week.

In other related news at the second link, Boeing and Firefly have also applied for FCC licenses, the former for a Starliner demo mission from November ’20 to May ’21, the latter for its first launch of its smallsat Alpha rocket, also from November ’20 to May ’21.

Firefly signs deal with satellite broker Spaceflight

Capitalism in space: Firefly Aerospace has signed a deal whereby the satellite broker Spaceflight will provide the payloads for one of Firefly’s Alpha rocket launches, planned for 2021.

The smallsat launch company already has several other launch contracts, even as development of its rocket proceeds.

Firefly is in the final phases of development of Alpha, and hopes to perform its first launch later this year. Markusic said the company is assembling the first flight vehicle, with plans to perform static-fire tests of the second stage in May and the first stage in June. Once those tests are complete, the vehicles will be shipped to Vandenberg, where work is continuing to modify Space Launch Complex 2 West, a former Delta 2 pad.

A lot can happen between now and 2021, but so far Firefly appears a strong candidate to launch and compete with Rocket Lab.

Fire during Firefly rocket engine test forces evacuations

A fire during an engine test of Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket yesterday has forced local officials to evacuate nearby residents for a short time.

Earlier Wednesday, Firefly Aerospace tweeted an image of a first stage for the company’s Alpha rocket on a vertical test stand at the Briggs facility. In the tweet, Firefly wrote that teams were loading liquid oxygen into a test version of the company’s Alpha booster in preparation for the first hotfire qualification test of the rocket’s first stage.

Firefly later deleted the tweet after local authorities responded to reports of an “explosion” at the test facility in Central Texas, and ordered the closure of roads in the area and the evacuation of nearby residents.

Officials later clarified that no explosion occurred. Tom Markusic, Firefly’s CEO, told KXAN — the NBC television affiliate in Austin — that a fuel leak resulted in a small fire on the test stand. [emphasis mine]

This is not good for the company’s planned launch schedule, which presently calls for the first operational flight in 2020.

At the same time, the company announced the signing of a contract today with a company that will act as a coordinator scheduling multiple smallsat customers on the rocket.

Firefly reschedules first rocket launch for April

Capitalism in space: Due to a number of engineering issues, Firefly Aerospace has pushed back the first launch of its Alpha rocket from March to April, 2020.

In particular, figuring out the two-stage rocket’s avionics system “gave us fits,” Firefly CEO Tom Markusic told Space.com in a recent interview. That’s because the company was originally hoping to make Alpha’s flight-termination system fully autonomous, he explained.

When the vendor couldn’t qualify that advanced system in time, the vendor switched to the usual “human in the loop” system. But waiting for parts pushed back Firefly’s December 2019 launch time frame to something closer to March 2020. Firefly then chose to take a little more time for further refinements and is now aiming for April 2020 for the first launch of the 95-foot-tall (29 meters) rocket, Markusic said.

According to the article at the link, the company plans two other launches in 2020. We shall see if that pans out.

Firefly completes full duration test of second stage engine

Capitalism in space: Firefly Aerospace has successfully completed a full duration static test fire of the second stage engine of its Alpha rocket.

During the test, all of the second stage’s flight avionics, structures, and propulsion systems were subjected to a sustained firing consistent with a normal flight mission. According to Firefly, preliminary analysis of data from the test show that all of the rocket’s systems performed nominally, and a post-test inspection revealed no observable degradation of the stage systems.

Firefly is attempting to complete development of its Alpha rocket, which has a capacity of up to 1 ton to low-Earth orbit, for a launch by the end of this year from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The company could reach another milestone as early as August, when Firefly anticipates performing the first long-duration test of the Alpha rocket’s first stage.

If the company succeeds in completing an orbital launch by the end of 2019, they will have leaped from the back of the pack to become one of the leaders in the smallsat rocket industry, in an incredibly short time. The company was thought dead in 2016 after a lawsuit appeared to bankrupt it. Since then it obtained significant new capital and has risen from the ashes, at a speed that appears astonishing.

Firefly inks big launch contract

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Firefly has signed a launch contact with an Italian satellite company to launch 15 of its satellites.

Firefly Aerospace Inc. has agreed to provide an Italian company 15 rides to space over a five-year period, the Cedar Park startup announced March 4. The agreement enables D-Orbit SpA to purchase room on future flights of Firefly’s Alpha rocket. The deal allows the Italian satellite company to “purchase, market and resell launch vehicle capacity, and to provide logistics support and integration activities at its operational premises in Italy,” according to the announcement.

I am certain that D-Orbit has options to back out and sign with other rocket companies should Firefly fall behind in its development of Alpha, which they say will have its first launch before the end of this year. Nonetheless, this contract bodes well for the company, as it indicates that others have faith in them.

Firefly to build and launch from Florida

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Firefly Aerospace announced yesterday that it will build its rocket manufacturing facility at Cape Canaveral, as well as launch from there.

Texas-based launch startup Firefly Aerospace finally revealed its plan to build a manufacturing facility near Kennedy Space Center and outfit the Air Force’s Space Launch Complex 20 in Cape Canaveral for its two core launch vehicles — one of the first manufacturing facilities of its kind in the Sunshine State.

Firefly was shrouded under the codename “Maricopa” for months as Space Florida, the state’s space development agency, trickled out details of a deal that includes an 18-acre chunk of Exploration Park and 28 acres at LC20. The value of the deal is $52 million, and Firefly vows to put 200 of its 300 employees in the Cape.

Firefly’s first rocket, Alpha, will cost $15 million per launch, which means it will either launch a larger bunch of smallsats or they will be serving the larger smallsats in this new industry.

Smallsat rocket company Firefly gets contract

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Firefly Aerospace had gotten a six-launch contract from Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL).

Firefly Aerospace, Inc. (Firefly), a developer of orbital launch vehicles for the small to medium satellite market, announced today the execution of a Launch Services Agreement (LSA) with Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) for use of the Firefly Alpha launch vehicle.

“Firefly is pleased to enter into an LSA with SSTL to provide up to six Alpha launches from 2020 through 2022,” said Firefly CEO Dr. Tom Markusic. “The Alpha launch vehicle allows for deployment of SSTL satellites as a primary payload to their preferred orbit, rather than flying as a secondary payload on a larger launch vehicle.”

This company had been driven into bankruptcy by a Virgin Galactic lawsuit. It has now risen from the dead. Its rocket has not yet flown, but that it got a launch contract indicates some confidence in them by Surrey. The company says it will do the first launch late in 2019, and become operational by 2020.

Firefly Aerospace shows off its Lightning-1 rocket engine

Capitalism in space: Firefly Aerospace earlier this week did a demonstration static fire test of its Lightning-1 rocket engine, designed as the upper stage engine for its Alpha rocket.

Currently under development, the engine will power the upper stage of the company’s 95-foot-tall (29-meter-tall), two-stage Firefly Alpha rocket. The full vehicle will be capable of sending some 2,200 pounds (1000 kilograms) into low-Earth orbit (LEO) for about $10 million. Additionally, it will be able to send 1,300 pounds (600 kilograms) into a 310-mile (500-kilometer) Sun-synchronous orbit.

These numbers suggest to me that this rocket will be comparable to India’s PSLV. At $10 million per launch, it will beat everyone else in that rocket class. They expect to do their first test orbital launch sometime in late 2019.

Firefly Aerospace had gone bankrupt because of a successful lawsuit against it by Virgin Galactic. It then found new backers and came back from the dead.