Firefly Alpha upper stage malfunction puts payload into wrong orbit

SANTA FE, N.M. — On December 22, a Lockheed Martin technology demonstration satellite was placed into an incorrect orbit due to an issue with the upper stage of a Firefly Aerospace Alpha rocket.

The “Fly the Lightning” mission, originally scheduled for December 20 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, was delayed by two days due to weather conditions. The Alpha rocket successfully lifted off at 12:32 p.m. Eastern time, with the rocket’s ascent proceeding as planned. Initial reports from launch controllers indicated that the upper stage had achieved a nominal transfer orbit. Firefly had scheduled a second burn of the upper stage to circularize the orbit and separate the payload approximately 40 minutes later.

However, several hours passed without an update from Firefly regarding the status of the launch. Tracking data from the U.S. Space Force revealed the presence of two objects in elliptical orbits measuring 215 by 523 kilometers after the launch. This suggested that the upper stage malfunctioned during the planned circularization burn.

Firefly finally confirmed 12 hours after the launch that the second stage had malfunctioned, preventing the payload from reaching its intended orbit. The company stated that it would collaborate with its customer and government partners to investigate the performance of the second stage and determine the root cause of the failure.

The payload for this mission was a small satellite developed and funded by Lockheed Martin. Using a Nebula bus from Terran Orbital, the satellite aimed to demonstrate an electronically steerable antenna that could be utilized on future broadband satellites. Firefly announced that communication had been established with the satellite and mission operations were underway. However, the low perigee of the spacecraft’s orbit indicates that it is likely to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere within the next few weeks.

This launch marked the fourth flight of the Alpha rocket, following the successful launch of the Victus Nox responsive space demonstration for the U.S. Space Force three months prior. In a previous launch in October 2022, the satellites it carried reentered the atmosphere shortly after being placed in an elliptical orbit instead of a higher circular orbit. Despite these early satellite reentries, Firefly claimed the launch was a success, stating that both stages met the required performance criteria.

The first launch of the Alpha rocket in September 2021 failed to reach orbit when one of its first stage engines shut down shortly after liftoff. However, subsequent launches have seen the first stages perform as expected.

Firefly had plans to increase the flight rate of the Alpha rocket, with at least four missions scheduled for 2024 and six planned for 2025. The company is currently working on new production facilities capable of manufacturing up to 24 Alphas per year.

In addition to the Alpha rocket, Firefly is also developing a first stage for Northrop Grumman’s Antares 330 rocket, known as the Antares 330. This new stage will be utilized in a new launch vehicle called MLV. Firefly aims to have the Antares 330 ready for service by mid-2025 and the MLV by late 2025.

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