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Firefly Aerospace to conduct maiden launch at Vandenberg in April

Artist's illustration of Firefly Aerospace's Alpha rocket lifting off.
Render of the Firefly Alpha rocket lifting off. (Credit: Firefly Aerospace).

JAN. 7, 2020– Firefly Aerospace announced yesterday morning with a interview of CEO Dr. Tom Markusic that they will launch the maiden flight of their Alpha launch vehicle from SLC-2W at Vandenberg A.F.B., California, in April 2020.

Originally scheduled for February 18 of this year, the launch was pushed back to April due to issues with the Flight Termination System. Markusic, CEO, noted that they had planned to use an Automatic FTS on the vehicle, but the vendor “couldn’t qualify that advanced system in time.” This means that Firefly now has to use a manual FTS with a range safety officer in the loop.

Firefly is currently working on certifying the Alpha launch vehicle for flight at SLC-2W. Having begun Alpha first stage qualification as of December 30, 2019, Alpha’s tests will eventually culminate in multiple 165 second full first stage burns, akin to the Space Launch System’s Green Run.

The Alpha launch vehicle is Firefly Aerospace’s first foray into the Venture-class lifter market. Capable of lifting 1,000 kg to a 200 kilometer orbit, and 630 kg to a 500 kilometer sun-synchronous orbit, Alpha is a two-stage, kerolox launch vehicle coming in at 29 meters (95 ft) tall and 1.8 meters (6 feet) wide. Alpha fills a niche in the satellite launch market previously left empty, the 500-1,000 kilogram range.

Alpha’s first stage is powered by four Reaver I engines, developed in-house by Firefly, for a total of 736 kilo-newtons (165,482 pounds-force) of thrust. The second stage is powered by a single Lightning I engine, outputting 70 kilo-newtons (15,759 lbf), at a specific impulse (efficiency) of 322 seconds. (For comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 achieves an impulse of 348 seconds, and the ULA Delta IV achieves an impulse of 465.5 seconds.)

Firefly is a “New Space” company founded in January 2014 by CEO Tom Markusic. After a turbulent start, involving a bankruptcy, Firefly returned in 2017 after being bought by Noosphere Ventures, who committed to seeing Firefly launch at least twice. Now in possession of SLC-2W at Vandenberg AFB and LC-20 at Cape Canaveral AFS, Firefly plans to launch its first “Alpha” vehicle in April of 2020.

Stay tuned for more coverage of Firefly Aerospace and Vandenberg launch operations.

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