Firefly’s Alpha rocket explodes on inaugural test launch

The first test flight of Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha launch vehicle ended in a fiery explosion. Credit: Gene Blevins / LA Daily News.

The first test flight of Firefly Aerospace’s privately-developed Alpha small satellite launcher ended in a fiery failure soon after liftoff Thursday from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

The rocket roared away from its pad at Space Launch Complex 2-West at 6:59 p.m. PDT (9:59 p.m. EDT; 0159 GMT) and all appeared to be going well as it climbed into a clear blue sky. The first sign of possible trouble came at about T+1 minute 47 seconds when a launch controller reported Alpha was not yet supersonic, a milestone it was supposed to have reached 40 seconds prior to that. At T+2 minutes 18 seconds the controller advised “vehicle is supersonic”. Shortly there after the rocket appeared to lose control and tumble for several seconds before exploding, approximately 2 minutes 29 seconds after launch.

Firefly Aerospace confirmed the mishap in a tweet: “Alpha experienced an anomaly during first stage ascent that resulted in the loss of the vehicle. As we gather more information, additional details will be provided.”

The Firefly Aerospace Alpha launch vehicle lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Credit: Gene Blevins / LA Daily News.

It was the inaugral flight for the two-stage Alpha rocket, which is designed to loft up to 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms) into a low-altitude orbit, or up to 1,388 pounds (630 kilograms) of payload to a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) sun-synchronous polar orbit.

The kerosene-fueled rocket is one of many privately-developed small satellite launchers new to the market. It is powered by four Reaver engines on the first stage which generate more than 165,000 pounds of thrust at maximum power, and a Lightning engine on the second stage will produces more than 15,000 pounds of thrust.

Firefly says the size of its rocket — which can carry heavier payloads than Rocket Lab’s Electron or Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne — differentiates it from other prospective launch providers in the smallsat launch market. It expects to sell a dedicated Alpha launch for $15 million per flight.

Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket exploded 2.5 minutes into its inaugural flight.

— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow)

The fully-assembled Alpha launch vehicle stands around 97.6 feet (29.75 meters) tall and measures nearly 6 feet (1.8 meters) in diameter.

Firefly Aerospace, headquartered in Cedar Park, Texas, was previously named Firefly Space Systems before entering bankruptcy. The renamed company emerged from bankruptcy proceedings in 2017 under new ownership.

Noosphere Ventures, a Menlo Park, California-based firm led by managing partner Max Polyakov, now funds Firefly’s rocket development program.

Firefly’s other projects beyond the Alpha launcher include the Beta rocket, which will use upgraded engines to haul heavier payloads into orbit. Firefly also has ambitions for a robotic lunar lander, a space tug powered by electric thrusters, and a reusable spaceplane.

In addition to its pad at Vandenberg, Firefly is also developing a second launch site would be located at the disused Complex 20 launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

For this first test flight the rocket was carrying a suite of educational, artistic, and research payloads. The company offered free launch capacity through a program Firefly calls the Dedicated Research and Education Accelerator Mission, or DREAM.

The Alpha rocket was targeting a 186-mile-high inclined 137 degrees to the equator. The unusual orbit, called a retrograde orbit because the rocket will travel against the Earth’s rotation, required the Alpha launcher to head southwest over the Pacific Ocean on a track that would have taken it south of Hawaii.

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UPD.

Official Firefly statement

Firefly conducted the first flight test of our Alpha vehicle on September 2, 2021. Although the vehicle did not make it to orbit, the day marked a major advancement for the Firefly team, as we demonstrated that we “arrived” as a company capable of building and launching rockets. We also acquired a wealth of flight data that will greatly enhance the likelihood of Alpha achieving orbit during its second flight. In short, we had a very successful first flight.

Here are a few specific notes about the flight:

The vehicle released and cleared the pad correctly. The various connections and moving mechanisms connected to the rocket all worked correctly. The vehicle controlled itself perfectly off the pad, with thrust vectoring eliminating all tipping or rotation, and the vehicle increased in speed at the exact rate that was predicted in modelling.

About 15 seconds into the flight, engine 2 (there are four Reaver engines on the first stage) shut down. It was an uneventful shutdown – the engine didn’t fail — the propellant main valves on the engine simply closed and thrust terminated from engine 2.

The vehicle continued to climb and maintain control for a total of about 145 seconds, whereas nominal first stage burn duration is about 165 seconds. However, due to missing the thrust of 1 of 4 engines the climb rate was slow, and the vehicle was challenged to maintain control without the thrust vectoring of engine 2. Alpha was able to compensate at subsonic speeds, but as it moved through transonic and into supersonic flight, where control is most challenging, the three engine thrust vector control was insufficient and the vehicle tumbled out of control. The range terminated the flight using the explosive Flight Termination System (FTS). The rocket did not explode on its own.

Firefly has commenced a thorough anomaly investigation to gain understanding of why engine 2 shutdown early, and uncover any other relevant unexpected events during flight. We will report root cause of the anomaly at the end of this investigation. In collaboration with the FAA and our partners at Space Launch Delta 30, we will return to conduct the second Alpha flight as soon as possible.

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