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Firefly Alpha Flight 004 Ends in Anomaly

Firefly’s Alpha launch vehicle takes to the skies as part of the Fly the Lightning mission from SLC-2W
Credit: Luna Doerrie

After several delays due to uncooperative weather, Firefly’s Alpha launch vehicle has flown for the fourth time as part of the Fly the Lightning mission. Firefly was able to find a break in the weather on Friday morning, and the vehicle lifted off from SLC-2W at Vandenberg Space Force Base at 9:32 AM PST on December 22, 2023. The launch vehicle successfully lifted off on a mission to place the Tantrum satellite developed by Terran Orbital and Lockheed Martin into a unique retrograde orbit, flying the company’s first dedicated commercial mission. However, after the first planned second stage burn, the Lightning 1 upper stage engine did not reignite, resulting in a lower than intended orbit.  

Firefly’s Alpha vehicle has been plagued with issues in its second stage before, after its second flight ended with deployment on a much lower altitude than planned. The drag from a lower than intended orbit resulted in the payloads decaying rapidly, ultimately re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Unlike the second flight of Alpha, however, the payload for Friday’s mission is communicating with ground stations, and is in apparent good health. It is unclear whether or not the Tantrum bus carried onboard will be impacted by this lower than intended orbit.   

In the leadup to the launch, Firefly repeated part of their demo for on-demand launch services that was first utilized for the U.S. Space Force during the VICTUS NOX campaign. The Tantrum payload was mounted to Alpha roughly 24 hours in advance of the launch, simulating response times for an on-demand mission. Members of the U.S. Space Force Tactically Responsive Space team have highlighted their need to observe these operations, as they look to “inform future missions and the requirements for repeatable on-demand launch capabilities”.

Firefly’s Alpha fits a unique size and capability class that aligns with many rapid response launchers around the world, including ABL’s RS1, Northrop Grumman’s Minotaur, South Korea’s TLV, and Arianespace’s Vega. Launchers in this class are being eyed for rapid response roles in a changing geopolitical landscape, highlighting a need for assured access to space to deal with developing global situations. Alpha’s successful demonstration of rapid callup during the VICTUS NOX underscores the company’s commitment to providing this capability for the United State. However, the partial failure of Friday’s mission calls quality control and ability to act on the capabilities required as a response launcher into question.

It is unclear at this time how Fly the Lightning’s anomaly will impact the schedule for the launch vehicle. Alpha’s next currently manifested mission is the Venture Class Launch Services 2 mission for NASA, launching the ELaNa 43 cubesat mission from SLC-2W at Vandenberg Space Force Base. This mission aims to certify the launch vehicle for NASA operations as the company begins to move away from their test flight campaign and into operational missions.

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