Alpha launching the “Fly the Lightning” mission. Credit: Jack Beyer/NSF for Firefly

Just on the heels of its success in integrating and launching a payload to orbit within 27 hours for the Space Force, Firefly Aerospace flew again — this time with a dedicated flight for Lockheed Martin. The Alpha FLTA004 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 2 West (SLC-2W) at California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base on Friday, Dec. 22, at 9:32 AM PST (17:32 UTC) following a delay due to weather on Wednesday. The first stage of Alpha performed nominally, along with the second stage’s first burn. This placed the satellite into an elliptical 216 by 523-kilometer low-Earth orbit, inclined 140.02 degrees.

Alpha’s second stage had a planned second circularization burn, which did not occur. However, communications have been established with the spacecraft, which may have time to perform some mission objectives before its early reentry.

The mission, codenamed “Fly the Lightning,” deployed an Electronically Steerable Antenna (ESA) demonstrator payload developed by Lockheed Martin’s Ignite organization as part of an agreement signed by the two companies in June.

Integrated onto a Terran Orbital Nebula small satellite bus and built using a proprietary design, the new wideband ESA sensor is expected to calibrate and be ready for operation in much less time than traditional on-orbit sensors, demonstrating the delivery of rapid capabilities to U.S. warfighters stationed across the globe. However, it is unclear if the satellite will have enough time on orbit to be calibrated.

The satellite, nicknamed “Tantrum,” served as the lone payload launched on the FLTA004 “Fly the Lightning” mission — the fourth overall flight for Firefly’s Alpha small satellite launch vehicle and the second flight for the company in 2023.

Alpha made its debut in September 2021 with the launch of the DREAM rideshare mission, though the flight only lasted approximately two and a half minutes after an early engine shutdown caused a later loss of control and the termination of the vehicle during ascent. Its second launch in October 2022, named “To the Black,” resulted in the payloads reaching orbit, albeit lower than planned.

The rocket’s third flight — the aforementioned VICTUS NOX mission for the United States Space Force — was conducted on Sept. 14 in private, with the public’s only notice coming in the form of the luminescent trail created by the vehicle during the launch. Afterward, Firefly announced that the mission was successful, having deployed the payload into the target orbit.

The success of VICTUS NOX was critical, as it achieved the aim of demonstrating rapid response launch capabilities: the ability to quickly deploy a satellite in orbit if the need for such a system arises, like in the event of a national security threat.

Firefly aimed to build on this capability as a secondary objective for “Fly the Lightning” by improving upon the total working hours between receiving the payload and launch readiness — time spent processing the spacecraft and integrating it with the launch vehicle.

Preparations for the mission started earlier in the fall, with Firefly performing qualification testing on the Alpha FLTA004 first and second stages at its testing facility in Briggs, Texas. Once finished, the stages were packaged and shipped to the launch site in Vandenberg.

The vehicle stack was rolled out to the pad at SLC-2W and raised to vertical as part of a dry run in mid-November, with a wet dress rehearsal and static fire being performed subsequently on the weekend of Dec. 9-10. The latter helped verify that all vehicle systems were ready for flight.

On launch day, Firefly teams conducted final pad checkouts starting at T-8 hours before liftoff. Once complete, the Alpha vehicle was powered up, and sensor checks were performed. Pressurized helium was loaded into the rocket starting at T-6 hours.

At T-5 hours 15 minutes, propellant loading operations commenced, with the loading of RP-1 kerosene into both stages, followed by the start of liquid oxygen loading at T-3 hours 40 minutes.

Alpha entered the terminal count at T-20 minutes, at which point the control of the countdown switched from Firefly controllers to the vehicle’s internal flight computers. Between this time and T0, the computers continuously monitored critical systems to ensure all was in working order ahead of the flight.

At T-2 seconds, the command was given to ignite the four Reaver 1 engines on the first stage, with liftoff occurring at T0 following the release of the hold-down clamps.

During ascent, Alpha became supersonic at approximately T+56 seconds before passing through the region of maximum dynamic pressure at around T+1 minute 7 seconds. The four Reaver 1 engines continued to burn up to T+2 minutes 33 seconds — the point of main engine cutoff.

Two seconds later, stage separation was successfully performed, with the ignition of the Lightning 1 vacuum engine around three seconds later. After this point, the first stage fell back to Earth to be expended in the Pacific Ocean.

Separation of Alpha’s fairing halves were jettisoned at T+3 minutes 8 seconds, exposing the Tantrum payload to space for the first time. The second stage engine fired until T+8 minutes 16 seconds into flight.

After an approximately 41-minute coast phase, the Lightning 1 motor aimed to relight for a ten-second adjustment burn that was to place the Tantrum satellite into the correct orbit. However, this burn did not happen, leaving the payloads in a lower-than-desired orbit. Despite this, the payload was deployed around T+54 minutes 34 seconds, bringing the “Fly the Lightning” mission to a close.

2023 has been a busy year for Firefly, which has been busy in many other areas, such as rocket and spacecraft development and testing.

For example, the company has recently completed structural environmental testing on a model of its Elytra orbital vehicle, which will be designed to serve as a multi-purpose satellite bus — either for deploying rideshare satellites or hosting payloads for long-duration missions.

Firefly has also taken a big step in engine development with a successful test of the Miranda engine, multiple of which will be used to power the first stages of Northrop Grumman’s Antares 330 and Firefly’s own Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV). The company says further testing will soon come, culminating in a 206-second full-duration hot fire.

As of December 2023, the Antares 330 launch vehicle is slated to have its maiden flight no earlier than mid-2025, with the launch of a Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station. The debut of MLV is tentatively scheduled for late 2025.

Big things await Firefly in 2024 in the realm of lunar exploration, with the launch of the company’s Blue Ghost lander on a SpaceX Falcon 9 slated to occur no earlier than September. The spacecraft will attempt to land at Mare Crisium with several NASA payloads, having developed Blue Ghost under contract for the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

Another Blue Ghost mission to the far side of the Moon is on the manifest for a launch no earlier than 2026.

[23 Dec 2023] Firefly suffers second stage anomaly on “Fly the Lightning” mission –
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