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.
Link here. The three private companies are Astra, Firefly, and Virgin Orbit. The fake Chinese private company is Expace.
Of the four, only Firefly has not yet attempted to launch, and in many ways remains the dark horse in this competition, coming out of bankruptcy to become reborn with a new investor. All three of the American private companies however have made it clear they intend to launch before the end of the year. The Chinese company’s plans are unknown (not surprisingly). Astra will be first, with its next launch attempt set for later this month.
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.
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.
Capitalism in space: The original investors in Firefly Aerospace, cut out when the company went bankrupt, have filed suit against the reborn company.
A group of original shareholders in the defunct Firefly Space Systems have accused co-founder and CEO Tom Markusic of fraudulently conspiring with Ukrainian billionaire Maxym Polyakov to force the rocket company into bankruptcy in 2017 and reconstitute it under a nearly identical name without giving them any stake in the new venture.
Markusic “betrayed the trust of his original co-founders and investors and committed fraud to cut them out of his aerospace company. Instead of managing the operations of the Original Firefly, a revolutionary rocket company with endless potential, Markusic schemed with…Maxym Polyakov…to rob Plaintiffs of their investments and form a new company called Firefly Aerospace, Inc. (the ‘New Firefly’),” the plaintiffs said in a lawsuit.
The article at the link has a lot more information. Read it all.
This is also not the first time Markusic has been sued. He left Virgin Galactic to found Firefly, and was then sued by Branson’s company for stealing proprietary technology. That lawsuit was settled when Markusic agreed to not use that technology in Firefly’s rockets.
Capitalism in space: Firefly has agreed to purchase Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 engine to use in it larger Beta rocket, presently under development.
Though deal also includes help from Aerojet for the development of Firefly’s smaller Alpha rocket,
…the companies made clear that the centerpiece of the agreement was the potential use of the AR1 on Firefly’s Beta rocket, giving Aerojet a customer for the engine while allowing Firefly to increase the performance of the medium-class rocket.
Beta is intended to fill the niche once served by ULA’s Delta 2. “It has left an opportunity for a modern launcher to come in at perhaps a better price point than Delta 2, and can address some of the new missions coming out,” such as small geostationary orbit satellites, he said.
The target payload capacity of Beta is eight metric tons to low Earth orbit, a size Markusic explained was driven by the market and which, in turn, led to a design change for the rocket. Beta’s original design resembled the Alpha but with two additional first stages as side boosters, a triple-core design like the Delta 4 Heavy or Falcon Heavy. Beta is now a single-core vehicle with an AR1 engine in its first stage.
Aerojet Rocketdyne had gotten a lot of Congressional money to develop the AR-1 with the intent it would be used in ULA’s Vulcan rocket. ULA has instead chosen Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, leaving Aerojet Rocketdyne high and dry without any customers. This deal might save that company, while making Firefly more competitive and robust. Moreover, because of all that money from Congress, Aerojet has probably been able to offer the engine at cut-rate prices.
A smart deal all around.
Capitalism in space: The American smallsat launch company Firefly Aerospace announced today that they will be partnering with a private Israeli company to use the design of Beresheet to build their own lunar lander for NASA.
Firefly Aerospace announced that it is partnering with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to create a new lunar vehicle based on the crashed spacecraft’s blueprints. Firefly says this lander will build upon “lessons learned” from the accident to ensure that the new lander does not meet the same fate.
…If Firefly does mount a lunar mission, the company’s lander, called Genesis, will leverage much of the Beresheet design as well as the IAI team’s flight experience. “Firefly Aerospace is excited to partner with Israel Aerospace Industries to provide the only NASA CLPS program flight-proven lander design,” Shea Ferring, Firefly’s vice president of mission assurance, said in a statement. The name of the lander is also a nod to Beresheet, which means “Genesis” in Hebrew.
It appears that a group of engineers from the non-profit SpaceIL, that built Beresheet, have teamed up to form their own company. It also appears that they have some rights to the spacecraft’s design, and could take them with them.
Firefly is competing for a NASA contract to land on the Moon. This deal strengthens their bid considerably.
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.
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.
The competition heats up: Doug Messier has posted a nice summary of the most important presentations so far at Smallsat 2016 in Utah.
These are the rockets designed to launch cubesats or smaller. It appears that at least two companies, Firefly and Vector Space Systems, are getting close to their first flights. Both already have customers. The progress of a third company, Virgin Galactic, sounds as good, but they have talked big too many times in the past to trust them at this point. In fact, regardless of what any of these companies say, it will be actual flights that puts them on the map.
What is interesting is the number of these companies. There are a lot of them, which suggests strongly that some are going to succeed.
The competition heats up: NASA this week awarded contracts ranging from $4.7 to $6.9 million to three different smallsat launch companies.
The companies are Firefly Space Systems, Rocket Lab USA, and Virgin Galactic. The second is the company that just won the contract to put a privately-built lunar rover on the moon (part of the Google Lunar X-Prize).
In the past, cubesats and other small satellites could only afford to be secondary payloads on much larger rockets. Thus, they were at the mercy of the needs of the primary payload, often resulting in significant unplanned delays before launch. This in turn acted to discourage the development of smallsats. Now, with these private launch companies designed to service them exclusively the smallsat industry should start to boom.
Note also the low cost of these contracts. The small size of cubesats and the launchers designed for them means everything about them costs much less. Putting an unmanned probe into space is thus much more affordable.
The competition heats up: Firefly Space Systems, a new company aimed at the small satellite market, successfully test fired its first rocket engine today.
This company is aiming for the same market that Virgin Galactic is going for with its LauncherOne rocket. It will be interesting to see if either can make money selling launch services to these small satellites.
The competition heats up: A rocket launch start-up created by former SpaceX engineers seeks to build their own Falcon 1 rocket for the small satellite market.
Their rocket, called Firefly, will use a number of new and old technological ideas. The highlighted words in this paragraph, however, stood out to me the most:
Just as Firefly is drawing on a lot of government research in its aerospike technology, the company is using a key element of the SpaceX Merlin engine—the pintle injector—in its new engine’s combustion chamber. Markusic, who jumped ship from NASA to SpaceX after the agency sent him to Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands to observe the first flight of the Falcon 1, says he started working on the technology—also used on the Apollo program’s lunar-descent engine —at SpaceX and when he was developing a liquid-fuel alternative to the hybrid engine used on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. [emphasis mine]
It only took one trip to see SpaceX in operation for this NASA engineer to become a former NASA engineer.