Firefly’s second stage failed to deliver payload to correct orbit

Firefly, a small lift launcher, successfully launched its fourth Alpha rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, just before the Christmas weekend. However, despite a normal booster and first burn of the second stage, the second burn failed to place Lockheed Martin’s tech demonstrator into its intended orbit.

Lockheed Martin’s Payload Lower Than Intended

The mission involved Firefly’s Alpha rocket carrying Lockheed Martin’s Electronically Steerable Antenna Demo satellite. The goal was to place the satellite into orbit, calibrate it, and put it into service quickly. Unfortunately, during the second burn of the rocket, the payload did not reach its precise target orbit. Communication with the spacecraft has been established, and mission operations are now underway.

According to Space Force tracking data, the satellite is currently in a lower-than-intended orbit, with an elliptical path ranging from 215 to 523 km above Earth’s surface. While satellites in proximity to the 500 km mark can remain in orbit for years, the lower orbit of 215 km suggests that Lockheed’s satellite may reenter Earth’s atmosphere within a few weeks.

Lockheed Martin has not commented on the potential impact of the lower orbit on the tech demonstrator’s mission. However, the lack of any updates regarding the current status of the mission may indicate that salvageable outcomes are being explored.

Firefly: One for Four Going Into the New Year

This launch marked Firefly’s fourth mission with its Alpha rocket. The previous flight, VICTUS NOX, was successfully completed for the Space Force in September. Firefly’s second flight also encountered a similar issue to Lockheed’s, with demonstration payloads being deployed into an incorrect orbit and decaying earlier than expected. However, Firefly still considered it a successful mission.

Looking ahead to 2024, Firefly aims to launch four more Alpha rockets, with an additional six planned for 2025. The Alpha rocket has a high payload capacity, capable of carrying up to one metric ton to low Earth orbit, surpassing Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket and Astra’s Launch System 2/Rocket 4.

Furthermore, Firefly is venturing into the medium launch space with the development of the Medium Launch Vehicle in collaboration with Northrop Grumman. Before that, Firefly will build a new first stage for Northrop’s Antares rocket, resulting in the Antares 330+.

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Just before the Christmas weekend, Firefly successfully launched its fourth Alpha rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. However, during the mission, there was an issue with the rocket’s second burn, resulting in Lockheed Martin’s tech demonstrator satellite not reaching its intended orbit. The satellite is currently in a lower-than-intended orbit, and it is expected to reenter Earth’s atmosphere within a few weeks. Firefly remains optimistic and is actively working on the mission. This launch adds to Firefly’s track record, with three successful missions prior to this. Looking ahead, Firefly has ambitious plans for the future, with multiple Alpha rocket launches scheduled in the coming years and the development of a medium launch vehicle in collaboration with Northrop Grumman.

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