Ground equipment problem wipes out Firefly’s 5th Alpha launch of 8 CubeSats for NASA – Spaceflight Now

Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket carrying eight CubeSats as part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch (CSLI) ELaNa (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) 43 mission departs from the company’s payload processing facility at Space Launch Complex, California, at Vandenberg Space 2 on Sunday, June 30, 2024. Firefly Aerospace is one of three companies selected to fly small satellites into space under NASA’s Launch Services Launch Services 2 (VCLS Demo 2) contract awarded in December 2020. Image: Firefly Aerospace / Trevor Mahlmann

Update at 12:30 a.m. EDT: Firefly called a “Summer Noise” mission cleanup and is evaluating its next launch opportunity.

A last-minute ground systems problem kept Firefly Aerospace grounded as it prepared to launch its fifth Alpha rocket on its first mission with NASA as a customer. When launched, the two-stage, 29.48-meter (96.7-foot) long rocket will send eight CubeSats from multiple NASA universities and centers into an Earth-synchronous orbit Monday evening.

Liftoff from Space Launch Complex 2 (SLC-2) at Vandenberg Space Force Base is now targeted no earlier than Tuesday, July 2, at 9:03 p.m. PDT (12:03 a.m. EDT, 0403 UTC).

The mission countdown reached T-8 seconds when the first abort call came. It was described as a “ground support issue”.

The launch teams made the call to recycle at T-19 minutes and aimed to end the 30-minute launch window at 9:33 p.m. PDT (12:33 a.m. EDT, 0433 UTC).

However, once the countdown reached around T-10 minutes and 12 seconds, a second timeout call was made and Firefly ultimately decided to abort the launch attempt.

“The team has identified the solution and is working quickly to meet our upcoming July 2nd launch window,” Firefly wrote on social media.

The Alpha FLTA005 mission, also nicknamed “Summer Noise”, 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 stable, fixed-price contracts to link small satellites to 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 — the risks associated with using new launch vehicles that provide 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 separation from the stage. Meanwhile, Relativity completed its Terran 1 rocket program before launching its VCLS Demo 2 mission. It will apparently be lobbying to fly that mission using its upcoming Terran R rocket, which will debut in the year 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 missile configuration with little or no prior demonstrated flight history.”

Technicians from the University of Maine prepare CubeSat MESAT-1 for integration into the Firefly payload processing facility at Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., on Monday, April 22, 2024. MESAT-1, along with seven other payloads, will are integrated into a Firefly Spacecraft Alpha rocket for NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) 43 mission as part of the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative contract and Firefly’s Venture-Class Launch Services Demonstration 2. Image: NASA

NASA refers to this flight as the ELaNa 43 (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites 43) mission. The eight CubeSats on board are part of the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI), which it describes as “an ongoing partnership between the agency, educational institutions and non-profit organizations, providing a path to space for small missions educational satellite”.

Alpha FLTA005 carries the following payloads, which will be placed in 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 Ames Research Center, Silicon Valley, California

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

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

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

Alpha returns to flight

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

In February, the company submitted its accident investigation report to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which included an accident investigation team and an independent review team to determine the root cause of the issue. Firefly determined that it was a bug within the guidance, navigation and control (GNC) software that was not communicating correctly with the upper stage feedback control system (RCS) thrusters.

“We are proud of the combined team’s ability to work together to achieve this positive result,” said Bill Weber, CEO of Firefly Aerospace, in a statement. “Looking forward, the important long-term outcome is the rapid and complete maturation of Alpha as the reliable one metric ton class missile that the market demands, which Firefly is committed 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 partial disaster, as evidenced by its recent investment in Firefly’s Alpha rocket as a ticket to space. In early June, it signed a multi-launch agreement with Firefly for 15 confirmed launches and up to 10 additional missions through 2029. The first launch at Alpha FLTA006 will be launched 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 flying fast by demonstrating the cutting-edge technology we are developing for them, as well as enabling our continued exploration of tactical and reactive space solutions.”

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

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

During that presentation, Weber said that Alpha FLTA007 will be the first launch of their Elytra orbiter “in the September/early October time frame.” The payloads that will be attached to that spacecraft have not been disclosed.

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

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

“We are pleased to announce this historic collaboration that will have a major impact on the global launch market, not least in Europe and the US,” Charlotta Sund, CEO at SSC, said in a statement. “By reducing the current orbital launch site gap in Europe, this cooperation strengthens the transatlantic connection between Sweden and the US, while providing unique space capabilities for Swedish NATO membership. We look forward to launching this competitive and well-proven launch service at Esrange in northern Europe.”

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

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

“I think the government is looking for resilient access to space and a Florida storm away from the delay for a while,” Oakes said. “So flying from Wallops is a unique differentiator, I would say, for that vehicle. It’s very cost competitive compared to the current Falcon 9 and Dragon system and actually delivers more payload than the Falcon 9 payload system will deliver. So we’re very excited about that.”

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