July 18, 2024

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Ground Equipment Problem Cancels Alpha V Launch of 8-CubeSats for NASA’s Firefly – Spaceflight Now

Ground Equipment Problem Cancels Alpha V Launch of 8-CubeSats for NASA’s Firefly – Spaceflight Now
Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket carrying eight small satellites as part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) ELaNa (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) 43 lifts off from the company’s Payload Processing Facility to Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Space Base, California, on Sunday, June 30, 2024. Firefly Aerospace is one of three companies selected to launch small satellites into space under NASA’s Venture-Class Launch Services Demonstration 2 (VCLS Demo 2) contract awarded in December 2020. Photo: Firefly Aerospace/Trevor Mahlmann

Update 12:30 AM EST: Firefly has announced the cancellation of the Summer Noise mission and is evaluating the next launch opportunity.

A last-minute ground systems issue forced Firefly Aerospace to shut down operations as it prepared to launch its Alpha V rocket on its first mission with NASA as a customer. When it launches, the 29.48-meter (96.7-foot) tall, two-stage rocket will send eight cubesats from multiple universities and NASA centers into sun-synchronous orbit Monday night.

The launch is now scheduled to take place from Space Launch Complex 2 (SLC-2) at Vandenberg Space Center no later than Tuesday, July 2, at 9:03 p.m. PST (12:03 a.m. EST, 0403 UTC).

The mission countdown reached T-8 seconds when the first abort call came in. It was described as a “ground support issue.”

Launch teams decided to recycle to T-19 minutes and targeted the end of the 30-minute launch window at 9:33 p.m. PDT (12:33 a.m. EST, 0433 UTC).

However, once the countdown reached about T-10 minutes and 12 seconds, a second abort call was made and Firefly ultimately decided to cancel the launch attempt.

“The team has identified a solution and is working quickly to meet the next launch date of July 2,” Firefly wrote on social media.

The Alpha FLTA005 mission, also nicknamed “Summer Noise,” is part of a $9.8 million Venture-Class Launch Services Demo 2 (VCLS Demo 2) contract awarded by NASA in December 2020. It, along with Astra Space Inc. ($3.9 million) and Relativity Space Inc. ($3 million), has been awarded fixed-price contracts to attach small satellites to newer rockets.

The idea, according to NASA, is that “these small satellites can tolerate a higher level of risk than larger missions and will demonstrate—and help mitigate—the risks associated with the use of new launch vehicles that provide access to space for small spacecraft and future missions.” The contract is funded in part by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate’s Earth Science Division in partnership with NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP).

Astra launched the VCLS Demo 2 mission in February 2022, which ended in failure shortly after the stage separated. Meanwhile, Relativity ended its Terran 1 rocket program before launching the VCLS Demo 2 mission. It will presumably push for that mission to be launched using its upcoming Terran R rocket, which is scheduled to launch in 2026.

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In May, NASA designated Firefly’s Alpha rocket as a “Category 1“On a three-point risk tolerance scale. It defines this category as “High Risk – a common new missile configuration with little or no proven prior flight history.”

Technicians from the University of Maine prepare CubeSat MESAT-1 for integration at Firefly’s Payload Processing Facility at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, on Monday, April 22, 2024. MESAT-1, along with seven other payloads, will be integrated onto a Firefly Aerospace Alpha rocket for NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) 43 mission as part of the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative and Firefly’s Venture-Class Launch Services Demonstration 2 contract. Image: NASA

NASA is referring to the flight as the ELaNa 43 (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites 43) mission. The eight small satellites on board are part of the agency’s Small Satellite Launch Initiative (CSLI), which it describes as “an ongoing partnership between the agency, educational institutions, and nonprofit organizations, providing a path to space for educational small satellite missions.”

Alpha FLTA005 carries the following payloads, which will be deployed in Sun-synchronous Earth orbit:

  • CatSat – University of Arizona, Tucson
  • KUbeSat-1 – University of Kansas, Lawrence
  • MESAT-1 – University of Maine, Orono
  • R5-S4, R5-S2-2.0 – NASA Johnson Space Center
  • Serenity – Teachers in Space
  • SOC-i – University of Washington, Seattle
  • TechEdSat-11 (TES-11) – NASA Ames Research Center, Silicon Valley, California

The functions of these satellites range from CatSat demonstrating a deployable antenna for high-speed communications to MESAT-1 studying temperatures “to determine the concentration of phytoplankton in water bodies to help predict algal blooms,” to the R5-S4 and R5-S2-2.0 satellites, which are looking at how to build more agile CubeSats.

“In the near term, R5 hopes to demonstrate new processes that will allow faster and cheaper development of high-performance cubesats,” Sam Pedrotti, R5 project manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in a statement. “The cost and schedule improvements will allow R5 to provide more risky ride options for payloads with lower technology readiness levels so that more of them can be demonstrated in orbit.”

A timeline of the Summer Noise mission launched by Firefly Aerospace using its Alpha FLTA005 rocket. Graphic: Firefly Aerospace

Alpha returns to flight

The last time the Alpha rocket launched was on December 22, 2023, when it launched the “Fly the Lightning” mission on behalf of the customer, Lockheed Martin. That mission ended in partial failure when an upper stage problem caused the rocket to fail to place the satellite in its intended orbit.

In February, the company submitted an accident investigation report to the FAA, which included an accident investigation team and an independent review team to determine the root cause of the problem. Firefly determined that it was a fault in the guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) software that did not properly communicate with the upper stage reaction control system (RCS) engines.

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“We are proud of the ability of the combined team to work together to achieve this positive outcome,” Bill Weber, CEO of Firefly Aerospace, said in a statement. “Looking ahead, the important long-term outcome is the rapid and complete maturation of Alpha as the reliable one-metric-ton rocket the market demands, which Firefly is dedicated to delivering.”

Firefly Aerospace launches Alpha FLTA004 rocket on ‘Fly the Lightning’ mission for Lockheed Martin. Photo: Firefly Aerospace/Trevor Mahlmann

The partial accident hasn’t deterred Lockheed Martin, as evidenced by its recent investment in Firefly’s Alpha rockets as a ticket to space. In early June, the company signed a multi-launch deal with Firefly that includes 15 confirmed launches and up to 10 additional missions through 2029. The first launch on the Alpha rocket, FLTA006, is scheduled for later this year from Vandenberg.

“Our customers have told us they need rapid advancements in new mission capabilities,” said Bob Behnken, director of Ignite Technology Acceleration at Lockheed Martin Space, in a statement. “This agreement with Firefly further diversifies our access to space, allowing us to continue flying quickly to demonstrate the advanced technology we are developing for them, as well as enabling us to continue exploring tactical and responsive space solutions.”

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony marking major expansions at the Cedar Park, Texas, manufacturing facility in late February, Weber told attendees that Alpha FLTA005 is the first of a handful of missions this year.

“We’re going to fly the Alpha four times this year with real missions that matter in the world we operate in,” Weber said. “We’re not going to test or try payloads and see what happens, real contracts with real customers, commercial and government. And then we’ll come back next year and do it another six to eight times and then move on.”

During that presentation, Weber said that Alpha FLTA007 would be the first launch of their Elytra orbiter “in the September/early October time frame.” The payloads that will be attached to that spacecraft have not been announced.

Firefly also announced that it has acquired Space launch In both Virginia and Sweden over the past month. Pad-0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Virginia, will be ready to support the Alpha rocket as well as the Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV) (in partnership with Northrop Grumman) in early 2025, she said. It takes over the space previously used by Northrop Grumman’s Antares 220+ rocket.

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a partnership The partnership with the Swedish Space Company (SSC) will allow launches to begin from the new spaceport at the Estrange Space Centre in Sweden starting in 2026.

“We are delighted to announce this historic collaboration that will have a significant impact on the global launch market, particularly in Europe and the US,” said Charlotte Sunde, CEO of SSC, in a statement. “By reducing the current gap in orbital launch sites in Europe, this collaboration strengthens the transatlantic link between Sweden and the US while providing unique space capabilities for Sweden’s NATO membership. We look forward to launching this competitive and proven launch service in Esrange in Northern Europe.”

Firefly signed an agreement in 2019 to use the SLC-20 at Cape Canaveral Space Station and announced plans to build an Alpha manufacturing facility at Exploration Park, near the gates of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

During a tour of the factory in February 2024, Adam Oakes, Firefly’s vice president of launch vehicles, said the ability to launch from Wallops would be a huge asset, especially when it comes to launching the MLV, which will launch the Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station.

“I think the government is looking for flexible access to space, and Florida is one hurricane away from being delayed for some time,” Oakes said. “So flying from Wallops is a unique advantage, I would say, for this vehicle. It’s very cost-competitive compared to the current Falcon 9 and Dragon system, and it actually carries more payload than the Falcon 9 cargo system would carry. So we’re very excited about that.”