Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket carrying eight CubeSats as part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative’s (CSLI) ELaNa (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) 43 mission rolls out of the company’s Payload Processing Facility to Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, on Sunday, June 30, 2024. Firefly Aerospace is one of three companies selected to fly small satellites to space under NASA’s Launch Services Program Venture-Class Launch Services Demonstration 2 (VCLS Demo 2) contract awarded in December 2020. Image: Firefly Aerospace / Trevor Mahlmann

Firefly Aerospace is preparing to launch its fifth Alpha rocket on its first mission with NASA as the customer. The two-stage, 29.48 meter (96.7-foot) tall rocket will send eight CubeSats from multiple universities and NASA centers to a sun-synchronous Earth orbit Monday night.

Liftoff from Space Launch Complex 2 (SLC-2) at Vandenberg Space Force Base is set for 9:03 p.m. PDT (12:03 a.m. EDT, 0403 UTC).

The Alpha FLTA005 mission, also nicknamed “Noise of Summer,” is part of the $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) were awarded firm fixed-price contracts to connect small satellites with 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 – risks associated with the use of new launch vehicles providing access to space for future small spacecraft and missions.” The contract is funded in part through the Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in partnership with NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP).

Astra launched its VCLS Demo 2 mission in February 2022, which ended in failure shortly after stage separation. Meanwhile, Relativity ended its Terran 1 rocket program prior to launching its VCLS Demo 2 mission. Presumably, it will lobby to fly that mission using its forthcoming Terran R rocket, which is set to debut in 2026.

In May, NASA classified Firefly’s Alpha rocket as “Category 1” on a three-tier risk tolerance barometer. It defines this category as “High Risk – New, common rocket configuration with little or no prior demonstrated 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 into 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 refers to this flight as ELaNa 43 (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites 43) mission. The eight CubeSats onboard are part of the agency’s CubeSate launch Initiative (CSLI), which it describes as “an ongoing partnership between the agency, educational institutions, and nonprofits, providing a path to space for educational small satellite missions.”

Alpha FLTA005 is carrying the following payloads, which will be deployed to a 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’s Johnson Space Center
Serenity – Teachers in Space
SOC-i – University of Washington, Seattle
TechEdSat-11 (TES-11) – NASA’s Ames Research Center, California’s Silicon Valley

Their functions range from CatSat’s demonstration of a deployable antenna for high-speed communications to MESAT-1’s study of temperatures to “determine phytoplankton concentration in bodies of water to help predict algal blooms,” to the R5-S4 and R5-S2-2.0 satellites, which are looking at how to build leaner CubeSats.

“In the near term, R5 hopes to demonstrate new processes that allows for faster and cheaper development of high-performance CubeSats,” said Sam Pedrotty, R5 project manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, in a statement. “The cost and schedule improvements will allow R5 to provide higher-risk ride options to low-Technology Readiness Levels payloads so more can be demonstrated on-orbit.”

A rendering of the timeline of Firefly Aerospace’s “Noise of Summer” mission using its Alpha FLTA005 rocket. Graphic: Firefly Aerospace

Alpha returns to flight

The last time an Alpha rocket launched was on Dec. 22, 2023, when it launched the “Fly the Lightning” mission on behalf of customer, Lockheed Martin. That mission ended in a partial failure when an issue with the upper stage caused the rocket to fall short of placing the satellite into its intended orbit.

In February, the company submitted its mishap investigation report to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which included both a mishap investigation team and an independent review team to determine the root cause of the issue. Firefly determined that it was an error within the guidance, navigation and control (GNC) software that didn’t correctly communicate with the upper stage’s reaction control system (RCS) thrusters.

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

Firefly Aerospace launches the Alpha FLTA004 rocket on the “Fly the Lightning” mission on behalf of Lockheed Martin. Image: Firefly Aerospace / Trevor Mahlmann

Lockheed Martin was not deterred by the partial mishap, as evidenced by its recent investment in Firefly’s Alpha rockets as a ticket to space. In early June, it signed a multi-launch deal with Firefly for 15 confirmed launches and up to 10 addition missions through 2029. The first launch on Alpha FLTA006 is set to launch later this year from Vandenberg.

“Our customers have told us they need rapid advancement of new mission capabilities,” said Bob Behnken, Director, Ignite Technology Acceleration at Lockheed Martin Space, in a statement. “This agreement with Firefly further diversifies our access to space, allowing us to continue quickly flight demonstrating the cutting-edge technology we are developing for them, as well as enabling our continued exploration of tactical and responsive space solutions.”

During a ribbon cutting ceremony marking key expansions at its manufacturing facilities in Cedar Park, Texas, in late February, Weber told the crowd that Alpha FLTA005 is the first of a handful of missions this year.

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

During that presentation, Weber said that Alpha FLTA007 will be the first launch of their Elytra orbital vehicle “in the September/early October timeframe.” The payloads that will attach to that spacecraft have not been announced.

Introducing Elytra: Our line of highly mobile and scalable orbital vehicles. Formerly known as our Space Utility Vehicle, Elytra offers more robust on-orbit solutions, including mobility, hosting, delivery, and servicing across cislunar space and beyond.

— Firefly Aerospace (@Firefly_Space) August 8, 2023

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

A partnership with the Swedish Space Company (SSC) will allow it to begin launching from the new spaceport at Estrange Space Center in Sweden beginning in 2026.

“We’re pleased to announce this historic collaboration that will have a huge impact on the global launch market, not least in Europe and the U.S.,” said Charlotta Sund, CEO at SSC, in a statement. “Reducing the current gap of orbital launch sites in Europe, this collaboration strengthens the transatlantic link between Sweden and the U.S. whilst offering unique space capabilities for the Swedish NATO membership. We’re looking forward to releasing this competitive and well-proven launch service at Esrange in northern Europe.”

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

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

“I think the government is looking for resilient access to space and Florida’s one hurricane away from being delayed some amount of time,” Oakes said. “So flying from Wallops is a unique differentiator, I’ll say, for that vehicle. It’s very cost-competitive compared to the current Falcon 9 system and Dragon and actually, delivers more cargo than what the Falcon 9 cargo system will deliver. So, we’re pretty excited about that.”

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