Firefly’s Alpha successfully launches VICTUS NOX rapid response mission

by Tyler Gray

Texas-based small launch company Firefly Aerospace jumpstarted its 2023 campaign with the launch of FLTA003 — the third flight of its Alpha launch vehicle — as part of a dedicated mission for the U.S. Space Force (USSF). Liftoff from Space Launch Complex 2 West (SLC-2W) at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California happened on Thursday, Sept. 14 at roughly 7:27 PM PDT (02:27 UTC on Friday, Sept. 15). The mission was successful.

The mission — colloquially known as VICTUS NOX, which translates to “conquer the night” in Latin — served as a demonstration of the United States’ capability to quickly place a satellite in orbit in response to a national security threat, if the need ever arises. Firefly was awarded the mission in October 2022 under the Orbital Services Program 4 contract.

As the launch provider, Firefly was expected to complete certain mission readiness milestones under a set timeframe as specified by the USSF. For example, the company had 60 hours of advance notice to encapsulate and mate the VICTUS NOX payload to the Alpha rocket before rolling the vehicle stack to the launch pad. T-24 hours before liftoff, another notice was provided specifying the launch window timing and orbital parameters.

The payload for the VICTUS NOX mission was manufactured by Millennium Space, a subsidiary of The Boeing Company. Most of the specifics regarding the satellite are unknown, though it has been confirmed that it will perform a space domain awareness mission while in space. This entails the tracking and monitoring of other objects in orbit, along with predicting possible orbital threats.

VICTUS NOX served as the third mission launched by Alpha — a two-stage small-lift orbital-class rocket developed by Firefly Aerospace. With a maximum payload capacity of 1,170 kilograms to low-Earth orbit (LEO) and standing at approximately 29.5 meters tall, Alpha boasts a higher mass-to-orbit capability than other small satellite launch vehicles, such as Rocket Lab’s Electron (300 kilograms to LEO).

Firefly’s first orbital launch attempt with Alpha in September 2021 ended in failure after an engine shutdown at T+14 seconds into the flight, eventually leading to a loss of control at approximately two and a half minutes after liftoff and the termination of the mission by ground controllers.

Launch of FLTA002 “To the Black.” (Credit: Michael Baylor for NSF)

The company reached orbit with Alpha on the second flight as part of the “To the Black” mission in October 2022, though the satellites were deployed at a lower-than-planned altitude. As such, the payloads reentered the Earth’s atmosphere approximately one week after launch.

In a social media post following the launch of “To the Black,” Firefly stated that only “minor tweaks” needed to be made to Alpha before the next mission, according to preliminary reviews.

Alpha’s first stage features four Reaver 1 engines, which are fueled using RP-1 kerosene and liquid oxygen (LOX). Each Reaver 1 motor produces a maximum thrust of approximately 200 kN and achieves a specific impulse of 296 seconds in a vacuum.

Reaver 1 utilizes a tap-off combustion cycle, in which hot gases from the combustion chamber are routed through the turbopump turbines before being exhausted. This forgoes the need for an extra gas generator, thus decreasing engine complexity and cost.

The same tap-off cycle can be found in Alpha’s second stage Lightning 1 engine, which is also powered by RP-1 and LOX and achieves a specific impulse of 322 seconds. To date, Reaver and Lightning are the only RP-1/LOX-fueled engines to have utilized the tap-odd cycle in flight.

The majority of Alpha’s construction consists of carbon-fiber composites, which help to form strong but lightweight propellant tanks and airframes. This includes the 2.2-meter diameter payload fairing, which will house the VICTUS NOX payload during launch.

Launch preparations for VICTUS NOX began in earnest in early 2023, with Firefly conducting final qualification tests of the Alpha FLTA003 first and second stages at its dedicated testing facility in Briggs, Texas. Once completed, the stages were shipped off to the launch site in California.

The FLTA003 stack was rolled out to the pad at SLC-2W in late March and raised to vertical for the first time in early April as part of a dry run, in which Firefly teams mated the payload fairing to the rocket while on the launch pad. A full-duration static fire of the first stage was then completed on April 12.

Satellite imagery from June 21 shows the reappearance of the FLTA003 vehicle at the pad at SLC-2W, sans the payload fairing — presumably done as part of the run-up to launch.

The company confirmed via social media in late August it had officially entered the “hot standby phase” of mission readiness, and that it was waiting for the final 24-hour notice from the Space Force — signaling a flight would soon be imminent.

On launch day, Firefly teams performed the final pad checkouts starting at T-8 hours before liftoff. Once complete, the teams powered up the Alpha rocket, conducted sensor checks, and began loading pressurized helium at T-6 hours.

Propellant loading operations began at T-5 hours 15 minutes with RP-1 loading into both stages of Alpha, followed by the start LOX loading at T-3 hours 40 minutes.

At T-20 minutes before launch, Alpha entered terminal count, at which point the rocket’s onboard computers took control of the countdown. Ignition of the four first stage Reaver 1 engines was commanded at T-2 seconds, with liftoff taking place at T0 following the release of the hold-down clamps.

The vehicle passed through the area of maximum dynamic pressure (max Q) at approximately T+1 minute into the flight. At around T+2 minutes 30 seconds, the four first stage engines shut down simultaneously in an event called main engine cutoff (MECO), moments before stage separation and the ignition of the Lightning 1 vacuum engine.

The payload fairing was be jettisoned at approximately T+3 minutes 20 seconds, exposing the VICTUS NOX payload to space for the first time. The Lightning 1 second stage motor continued to burn until approximately T+8 minutes after liftoff, at which point shutdown was set to occur.

VICTUS NOX is slated to be one of many missions launched by Firefly Aerospace in 2023, with another Alpha rocket — FLTA004 — set to launch the ELaNa 43 CubeSat mission for NASA later in the year. Both stages for the mission have undergone testing at the company’s Briggs facility in preparation for flight.

The company is also gaining customers for its launch business, having signed an agreement with defense contractor L3Harris Technologies in early September for three dedicated launches on Alpha vehicles. Each of these flights will launch from Vandenberg SLC-2W no earlier than 2026, and will also feature rapid response capability.

Firefly is also heavily focused on developing components for its Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV) — a two-stage medium-lift rocket that features uprated Miranda engines and has a planned maximum payload capacity of 16,000 kg to LEO. The company anticipates conducting the first launch of MLV no earlier than 2025.

In addition to launch vehicles, Firefly is also continuing to build the Blue Ghost lunar lander, which will take NASA payloads to the surface of the Moon under the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. The first of these missions is due to launch no earlier than 2024 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9, with the company being awarded a second mission in March for a launch in 2026.

Earlier in the week, Firefly stated that it had won a third CLPS contract award from NASA to provide radio frequency calibration services for the Lunar Surface Electromagnetic Experiment at Night (LuSEE-Night) telescope, which will be deployed on the far side of the Moon during the Blue Ghost 2 mission. LuSEE-Night will measure low-frequency radio emissions during the lunar night, providing insight into the early history of the universe and its “Dark Ages.”

(Lead image: File photo of Alpha vertical at SLC-2W prior to launch. Credit: Michael Baylor for NSF)

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