Firefly closes in on debut flight with rocket delivery to Vandenberg launch site

by Tyler Gray

Across the world, several startup launch providers such as Relativity Space, Astra, Virgin Orbit, and others are currently in fierce competition with one another to bring their in-development rockets into operation and obtain a share of the ever-growing small satellite launch market.

One of those companies – Texas-based Firefly Aerospace – has taken a substantial step in these efforts with the shipment of their first flight-ready vehicle to its launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

That vehicle is known as Alpha: a two-stage rocket that Firefly hopes to launch no earlier than 22 December from Space Launch Complex 2 West (SLC-2W). The company is aiming to deploy several small satellites into orbit during this flight as part of the Dedicated Research and Education Accelerator Mission (DREAM).

Alpha itself will stand 29 meters (95 feet) tall when fully stacked and is said to be capable of delivering up to 1,000 kilograms (2,204 pounds) of payload to a low-inclination 200 kilometer orbit and 630 kilograms (1,388 pounds) to a 500 kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit.

Artist’s impression of an Alpha rocket in flight – credit: Firefly Aerospace

The rocket is powered by four “Reaver” first stage engines and a single “Lightning” second stage engine, both of which are fueled by RP-1 kerosene and liquid oxygen (LOX). These engines feature Firefly’s “Crossfire” propellant injection system and a tap-off combustion cycle, in which hot gases from the combustion chamber are routed through the turbopump turbines and then exhausted.

According to Firefly, the use of this engine cycle decreases engine complexity and cost while increasing the motor’s overall reliability. The Reaver and Lightning engines will be the first RP-1/LOX-fueled engines to fly using this cycle.

The Flight 1 engines in particular are outfitted with additive manufactured parts, which were developed in cooperation with experienced engine manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne. The two companies will continue to develop components for future iterations of the Reaver and Lightning engines as part of an agreement that was signed in October 2019.

The Alpha rocket’s structure and propellant tanks are constructed out of carbon fiber composites, which has proven to be ideal for smaller launch systems due to the material’s high strength and low density. One of Firefly’s main competitors in the small satellite market, Rocket Lab, has successfully flown many of their Electron rockets that are built using these same materials.

An assortment of propellant tank hardware, used for Alpha development – credit: Firefly Aerospace

Firefly has not yet flown with this hardware, but they successfully demonstrated its viability during qualification testing of Alpha’s assorted components at their rocket development and test facility in Briggs, Texas.

Since late 2017, dozens of static fire tests of the Reaver and Lightning engines have been conducted on a horizontal test stand in order to verify that the engines will perform at a nominal level during flight. The company has also constructed a vertical test stand at the facility, thereby allowing Firefly to conduct fully-integrated tests of rocket stages – including tanking tests, wet dress rehearsals, and firings.

The Alpha Flight 1 second stage was subject to these kinds of tests throughout the end of 2018 and most of 2019, with the final qualification firing test completed in November of that year.

With that done, Firefly moved to begin Alpha Flight 1 first stage qualification testing, which began in earnest in December 2019 with the installation of the stage onto the vertical test stand.

Several tests were conducted in January 2020 in preparation for a first static fire test using all four Reaver engines. On 22 January, all four engines were fired up on the stand, but were then quickly shut down due to the development of a fire in the engine compartment. Firefly elected to temporarily stand down from first stage testing afterwards to review data and inspect hardware.

In the meantime, the company qualified several of Alpha’s other critical components ahead of the company’s debut flight, including the avionics, engines, propellant tanks, and flight termination system.

Firefly workers also managed to furnish critical hardware to accommodate the Alpha rocket for use at Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 2 West (SLC-2W). This included the strongback (also known as the TEL – Transporter-Erector-Launcher) and Mobile Launch Stand, both of which were shipped to the launch site for assembly.

Firefly Aerospace officially obtained permission to use SLC-2W’s launch facility for Alpha in May 2018 via a statement of support from the U.S. Air Force. The first flight of Alpha will be the first launch from SLC-2W since September 2018, when NASA’s ICESat-2 spacecraft was launched on the final flight of United Launch Alliance’s Delta II.

The qualification tests and Vandenberg pad work was performed despite the rapid spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic around the world and in the United States. Firefly’s CEO and co-founder Tom Markusic – former Vice President of Propulsion at Virgin Galactic, Principal Propulsion Engineer at SpaceX, and Senior Systems Engineer at Blue Origin – stated that isolated positive cases from employees were accounted for and that no transmission of the virus occurred within the company.

In August 2020, Firefly reintroduced the Alpha Flight 1 first stage to the vertical test stand at the Briggs testing facility, thereby restarting stage qualification testing in preparation for the rocket’s upcoming mission.

The Alpha Flight 1 first stage on the stand at Firefly’s Briggs test facility, ready for a static fire – credit: Gary Blair for NSF/L2

These efforts culminated in a fully successful static fire test on the stand on 19 September, with all four Reaver engines performing nominally throughout the 35 seconds of firing time.

Testing on the Alpha first stage continued up until 9 October, when a final acceptance firing test was conducted on the vertical stand. Following a thorough inspection, the stage was loaded on a truck and shipped to Vandenberg Air Force Base. It arrived at Firefly’s SLC-2W on Wednesday, 4 November.

The rocket will now be fully integrated and inspected before rolling out to the launch pad for a final series of tests, which will include a final static firing of the first stage’s Reaver engines.

Afterwards, barring any further postponements, Firefly will aim to launch the DREAM mission on Alpha no earlier than 22 December.

In terms of launch vehicles, Alpha is not the only rocket that Firefly is planning to develop. Another orbital launch system is in works, featuring the name “Beta” – a larger two-stage, RP-1/LOX-fueled rocket that is said to be capable of launching 8,000 kilograms (17,636 pounds) of payload to low Earth orbit and has the capacity to launch satellites to geosynchronous transfer orbits (GTO).

Artistic render of the Firefly Beta launcher – credit: Firefly Aerospace

Previous iterations of Beta envisioned Firefly developing a tri-core launcher, similar in function to United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. The design has since changed to that of a single-core vehicle, utilizing five Reaver 2s (upgraded, higher-thrust versions of Reaver) on the first stage and a vacuum-optimized Reaver 1 engine on the second stage. Beta could be outfitted with recovery hardware in the near future.

Firefly expects to begin developing hardware for Beta in 2021, with the first launch taking place sometime afterwards.

However, producing rockets is not the only focus for Firefly. Other types of spacecraft will be entered into the fold soon to achieve CEO Tom Markusic’s vision of becoming an end-to-end space transportation company.

One such spacecraft is the Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV): a multi-purpose upper stage that will act as a satellite bus, designed to support payloads for up to five years on orbit. It will weigh in at 130 kilograms (286 pounds) when fully fueled, and will be equipped with Xenon Hall thrusters, which should enable launches to an assortment of destinations – including geostationary and lunar orbits.

Diagram of a Firefly Orbital Transfer Vehicle – credit: Firefly Aerospace

Some OTV components will see their first launch on the DREAM mission, with others going up on subsequent flights.

Firefly also has plans to build a lunar lander in cooperation with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for participation in NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Christened Genesis, the lander’s design is largely based off of the Israeli-developed Beresheet lander, which failed its attempted lunar landing at the Mare Serenitatis in April 2019. Firefly obtained the intellectual property rights to the lander design in June that same year.

According to Markusic, Firefly recently made a bid to win a CLPS contract from NASA. If selected, Genesis will deliver several payloads to the lunar surface after its launch on a Beta rocket.

Beta and Genesis are still on the horizon for Firefly, but the company is prepared to kick off a large production run. An AS9100 quality certification awardment in May 2020 and a recent agreement to use Automated Fiber Placement (AFP) machines for manufacturing will soon see new Alpha rockets being built every two weeks, according to the company.

Two AFP systems will be installed by Firefly: one at their Briggs, Texas, facility in May 2021 and another at their planned factory at Exploration Park in Cape Canaveral, Florida, sometime in 2022.

Artist’s impression of Firefly’s completed Exploration Park factory – credit: Firefly Aerospace

The Florida factory will also supplement Firefly’s activities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 20 (SLC-20). The facility previously hosted launches of the Titan I missile in the late 1950s, along with a handful of Titan III launches in the 1960s before being deactivated in 1996.

Firefly acquired a lease to use the facility in February 2019 and is now working to renovate it to support Alpha launches in the near future.

The company’s backlog currently consists of several flights for a number of commercial customers, including mission management provider Spaceflight, Inc. and satellite providers ISILaunch and Spire Global. All of these missions will utilize Alpha rockets, with the flights taking place in the coming years.

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