Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket suffers problem, deploys satellite in wrong orbit

Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket encountered a problem with its upper stage during its fourth-ever flight on Friday (Dec. 22), resulting in the delivery of its payload to the wrong orbit. The rocket, carrying an electronically steerable antenna (ESA) payload developed by Lockheed Martin, took off from California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base at 12:32 p.m. EST. While the initial stages of the mission went smoothly, the upper stage failed to deliver the payload to its intended orbit. However, communication with the spacecraft has been established, and the company has initiated mission operations.

Firefly Aerospace, in line with its commitment to innovation, is actively working to identify and resolve the issue encountered during the flight. The company plans to collaborate with its customer and government partners to investigate the performance of the second stage and determine the root cause of the problem.

The Lockheed Martin payload onboard the Alpha rocket was designed to showcase faster on-orbit sensor calibration, providing rapid capabilities to U.S. warfighters. Traditional on-orbit sensors often require months to power on, calibrate fully, and become mission-ready. However, the ESA sensor was expected to significantly reduce this time.

Originally scheduled for Wednesday, the launch, called “Fly the Lightning,” was delayed by two days due to unfavorable weather conditions. This mission marked the fourth orbital flight for Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket, which stands at a height of 95 feet (29 meters). The rocket’s first test flight in September 2021 ended in failure shortly after liftoff. The second attempt in October 2022 was partially successful but resulted in satellites being deployed at a lower altitude, leading to early reentries.

However, the third mission, called Victus Nox and conducted in September 2023 for the U.S. Space Force, was a resounding success. The Alpha rocket was launched just 27 hours after receiving the order, achieving the shortest turnaround time for any national-security mission. Furthermore, the rocket accurately deployed its primary payload, a satellite dedicated to space domain awareness.

Although the customer for the Fly the Lightning mission was a private company, the U.S. military closely monitored the launch. The U.S. Space Force’s Tactically Responsive Space team observed the launch to gather insights for future missions and determine the requirements for repeatable on-demand launch capabilities.

Please note that this article has been updated multiple times to provide the latest information.

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