After six months of preparation following its last flight, Firefly is ready to launch the Alpha rocket on its fifth mission no earlier than Momday, July 1, at 9:03 PM PDT. This mission, named Noise of Summer, is to launch eight CubeSats to a Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO) from Space Launch Complex-2W (SLC-2W) at Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB) in California. The live stream for Firefly’s fifth launch is in collaboration with NSF, starting at 8:33 PM PDT and will be available on the NASASpaceflight YouTube channel. 

After a failure on the first flight, partial failures on the second and fourth flight, and only a single success on the third flight, Firefly is looking to validate the systems of Alpha to prove that it can reliably make it to orbit. Firefly plans to integrate the payload fairing within hours of this launch, which is unlike normal operations wherein the fairing is integrated weeks before launch. 

Firefly plans to accomplish this while supporting NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites 43 project. The eight satellites flying on Noise of Summer come from this project’s goal to get lower-cost, student-built CubeSats to space. These include three NASA-built satellites and five university-built satellites. 

Payloads

Two of the satellites built by NASA’s Johnson Space Center were the R5-S4 and R5-S2-2.0. These CubeSats are working as a pair to improve the relative navigation between spacecraft in orbit by using a system made by the University of Michigan called “April Tags,” which is similar to a QR code. Additionally, these satellites have a small blinking light that has a specific sequence of flashes to identify distinct spacecraft using telescopes. This system is being called a spacecraft license plate and could help to sort out the increasing congestion of satellites in orbit.

R5-S2-2.0 (left) and R5-S4 (right) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. (Credit: NASA)

NASA Ames Research Center engineers led college and university students to create the TechEdSat-11 satellite. This satellite will have many technology demonstrations to advance the capabilities of future satellites. It contains advanced communications to autonomously intervene to correct procedures before it downloads any data from the ground stations. It also has a suite of radiation sensors, experimental solar panels, and the BrainStack-3 machine learning system. Along with all these exploratory technologies is an exo-brake that can deploy like a parachute to reduce the time it takes for the CubeSat to deorbit. 

Teachers in Space, a non-profit helping lower the cost of getting student-built satellites to orbit, is launching Serenity 3 on Firefly’s Alpha. Serenity 3 has multiple educational experiments onboard, which can be accessed by anyone through ham radio. Serenity 3 is licensed as an amateur radio broadcaster so anyone with interest can collect data or pictures from the satellite to increase their understanding of how spacecraft work.

CatSat rendering with its inflatable antenna fully deployed. (Credit: University of Arizona)

The University of Arizona, in collaboration with NASA’s Space Technology Misson Directorate, Freefall Aerospace, and Rincon Research Corporation, developed CatSat, a technology demonstration of an inflatable antenna for communications. CatSat’s antenna is made of a Mylar balloon, which allows microwaves to pass through a transparent side and touch the other aluminum-covered side, creating a reflecting antenna. The antenna will be inflated to around 460 millimeters, allowing for speeds of around 50 megabits per second.  If the demonstration works as expected, the technology could save valuable space to allow larger, more powerful spacecraft to make it to orbit without having to worry about room for a physical antenna.

KUbeSat-1 is going to be the first-ever satellite developed by the University of Kansas to be put into orbit. This satellite has a primary cosmic ray detector which will be used to study the energy and species of primary cosmic rays striking Earth. It also has a high altitude calibration to research very high-frequency signals generated by cosmic ray interactions in the atmosphere. This will be a demonstration of the high-altitude calibration to lead to a larger, more advanced version of the satellite.

SOC-i CubeSat being prepared for integration onto Alpha. (Credit: NASA)

SOC-i is a technology demonstration mission for attitude control technology created by the University of Washington. It will use a guidance and control system called SOAR, which can compute trajectories to avoid pointing instruments directly at the Sun while still getting enough power to solar panels, for example. Another payload called CMOS is a camera to confirm SOC-i’s pointing capabilities.

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The University of Maine, in partnership with high school students, designed and built MESAT1. The mission of this spacecraft is to determine the concentration of phytoplankton in the water all over the world to predict harmful algal blooms. This satellite will use four multispectral cameras and include climate-focused sensors to look for these in-danger areas.

If even a few of these experiments work as expected, these eight CubeSats could advance how spacecraft are developed and constructed. They could also provide valuable data to colleges and universities all over the United States, providing students with even more resources to understand how satellites work and motivation to innovate on spacecraft themselves.

Noice of Summer launch profile

With the expedited integration of the faring coming only fifteen hours before launch, Firefly’s team will be pushing to get ready for flight within 24 hours of the launch day. At this time, the pad will have to have been configured for flight, Alpha will need to be raised vertically on the pad, and propulsion systems will need to have final checks completed before fuel loading starts.

Graphic showing the launch timeline for Noise of Summer. (Credit: Firefly)

At T-4 hours, rocket propellant 1 (RP-1) and liquid oxygen (LOX) will begin loading into the vehicle. LOX will be topped off at T-1 hour and 5 minutes. At T-20 minutes the “ready” report for the terminal count will be carried out. If everything is go for launch, the vehicle will enter terminal count at T-15 minutes. 

At T-5 minutes, the strongback retracts, and the final commitment for launch is carried out at T-2 minutes, at which point Alpha will switch to its internal systems. 

At T-2 seconds, the four Reaver 1 engines ignite on the first stage, with liftoff following two seconds later. Alpha will then pitch downrange over the Pacific Ocean, becoming supersonic at T+54 seconds and then reaching the area of maximum aerodynamic pressure, or max-Q, nine seconds later.

At the end of first stage flight, four critical events will occur in rapid succession. Main engine cutoff will occur at T+2 minutes and 30 seconds, followed by stage separation three seconds later. Then, two seconds after that, Stage 2 ignites its Lightning 1 engine with fairing separation coming only ten seconds later at T+2 minutes and 45 seconds. 

Graphic showing the launch trajectory and timelime for the Noise of Summer mission. (Credit: Firefly)

Stage two will continue to roar until stage two engine cutoff (SECO) at T+8 minutes and 10 seconds. Following SECO is a 36-minute and 23-second orbital coast phase until payload deployment. 

The order of deployment begins with SOC-i at T+44 minutes and 33 seconds and continues with about a minute and a half between each satellite deployment until MESAT-1 is released at T+55 minutes and 13 seconds, completing the Noise of Summer mission.

Launch Site Expansion

Firefly was recently approved to begin producing a new launch site at Wallops Island in Virginia. More specifically, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) gave Firefly access to launch from Launch Pad-0A (LP-0A) at the facility. This pad is already in use by Northrop Grumman’s Antares 330 but will be configurable to either company’s launch vehicle. Already actively working on Space Launch Complex 20 at Cape Canaveral, these three launch pads will allow Firefly to reach specific orbits that contractors may desire. 

Firefly rendering of Alpha standing atop a reconfigured LP-0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops Island, Virginia. (Credit: Firefly)

Reconfiguration of LP-0A is to be completed as soon as 2025, with Firefly hoping to launch from the site that year. Additionally, a launch control center, horizontal integration facility, and administrative office space will be added to the facility to support Firefly. Having access to Wallops and Firefly’s additional launch facilities will lead to less congestion and faster turnaround times for the launch of Alpha and the company’s upcoming Medium Launch Vehicle. Firefly added that they plan to reach a monthly launch cadence by 2026, and having multiple spaceports online to support Alpha will be a great way to create more competition in the spaceflight industry.

In addition to the Wallops facility, Firefly recently closed on a deal with the Swedish Space Corporation for the ability to launch from the Esrange Space Center in Sweden. This gives Firefly the opportunity to become the first U.S. company to launch from Europe. Firefly will have access to  Launch Complex 3C, which is already being upgraded. If all goes to plan, the launch site should be ready by 2026. Launching from Sweden creates many new opportunities for Firefly to enter into the European space market without having to ship satellites across the world to the U.S.

(Lead Image: Firefly Alpha atop SLC-2W at VSFB ahead of the launch of a previous mission. Credit: Firefly)

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