News and Updates

Fly The Lightning

The payload fairing for the Fly The Lightning mission painted with the Lockheed Martin logo
Credit: Firefly Aerospace

Texas based Firefly Aerospace is looking to launch their second mission this year. Their Alpha rocket will be launching on a mission dubbed “Fly The Lightning”, which will be the vehicles first operational commercial launch. On board will be Tantrum, a commercial payload being operated by Lockheed Martin. Liftoff is currently slated for Wednesday morning.

The Tantrum mission is a demonstration of Lockheed Martin’s novel wideband Electronically Steerable Antenna (ESA). These types of antennas, also known as phased array antennas, utilize a combination of small antenna-like elements together. These small antennas can then have their power levels individually modulated, which changes the frequency at which they individually operate. When these emissions combine, they create a combined plane wave traveling in a specific direction, effectively steering the antenna without any moving components. ESAs have been used on spacecraft previously, most notably on NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft.

The antenna being tested on Tantrum is aimed at reducing activation time on satellites, as traditional antennas can take a significant amount of time to calibrate and prepare for on orbit operations. However Lockheed Martin is also aiming to leverage commercially available components and scalable design philosophies to lower both cost and production time for payloads requiring ESAs in the future. This antenna is mounted to a Nebula satellite bus provided by Terran Orbital, a smallsat manufacturer based out of Boca Raton Florida.

A Render of the Tantrum Satellite
Credit: Lockheed Martin

Nebula is an ESPA class satellite bus that is designed to support up to 130 kg of mounted payloads on board while providing power, propulsion, and attitude control. The bus can be configured with up to 1kW of solar array power, and comes standard with a hall effect thruster for orbital maneuvering.

Launching this mission will be Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket, a two stage dedicated smallsat launcher. It will be the fourth mission for the rocket, and comes three months after the VICTUS NOX mission, the first undisputed success for the burgeoning launcher. The prior mission, “To The Black” made it to orbit, but underperformed, resulting in its payloads reentering just over a week after launch.

In the leadup to the launch, Firefly will repeat part of their demo for on-demand launch services that was demonstrated for the U.S. Space Force during the VICTUS NOX campaign. The Tantrum payload will be mounted to Alpha in a timeframe similar to that expected for an on-demand mission. Members of the U.S. Space Force Tactically Responsive Space team will be observing these operations, as they look to “inform future missionIs and the requirements for repeatable on-demand launch capabilities”.

The need for rapid response launches has risen sharply in recent years, as countries develop technologies to disable or destroy orbiting satellites. Launchers such as Firefly’s Alpha, Northrop Grumman’s Minotaur, and ABL Space System’s RS1 have already received contracts to demonstrate tactical launch readiness for the US Space Force. The US is not alone in this endeavor, as other countries such as South Korea have also been*developing and launching their own rapid response launchers*

This mission is unique for Firefly as they move from development flights of Alpha into full scale operations for the launcher. Provided the mission is a success their next flight will be ELaNa-43 for NASA, which will launch a set of ten cubesats to low Earth orbit for various universities across the United States.

Fly The Lightning is currently slated to lift off from SLC-2W on December 20th during a 20 minute window opening at 9:18 am PST. Backup windows are currently also booked for the 21st and 22nd. However, weather systems in California currently pose a threat to the launch date, and may result in the mission delaying until after the skies clear above Vandenberg Space Force Base.

Edited By Nik Alexander

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