Firefly's Alpha rocket earns its wings with first successful launch
There was much to celebrate on Saturday as Firefly Aerospace's Alpha rocket successfully delivered a few tiny satellites to Earth orbit for the first time ever, according to an article by Space.com.
Making orbit and delivering payloads
The rocket lifted off from California's Vandenberg Space Force Base on October 1 at 3:01 a.m. EDT (12:01 a.m. local California time; 0701 GMT) and managed to make to orbit and deliver all three of its payloads.
However, its previous attempts to launch have not gone so well.
In September of 2021, an Alpha rocket exploded after take off and saw the Space Force move to terminate the mission.
It happened just two and a half minutes post-liftoff. The rocket failed to reach its maximum aerodynamic pressure (called "Max Q"), and started to swagger to its side until it turned horizontal. This is when it exploded.
With no hope of recovery, Space Launch Delta 30 stepped in to terminate the launch vehicle to keep it from potentially slamming into public areas, detonating the rocket mid-air in what would be a disastrous explosion.
The launch, however, was still deemed a success as Firefly achieved several key mission objectives before the explosion, like nailing a first stage ignition, followed by a clean liftoff and seamless "progression to supersonic speed."
Data collected from this first failure may also have been what made Alpha a success today. The rocket this time headed into the California sky without a glitch and proceeded to hit its marks as planned. The rocket's two stages separated about 2.5 minutes after liftoff, and the upper stage inserted into an elliptical transfer orbit five minutes after that.
About 53 minutes after launch, the upper stage managed to place itself successfully into an orbit targeted to be 190 miles (300 kilometers) above Earth.
All three payloads were to be deployed just under an hour after liftoff and Alpha managed to do that as well.
Changing the space delivery industry
This successful launch could mean a lot of the space delivery industry.
The Alpha rocket design took roughly a decade to prepare, with the design emphasizing a launchflow for tiny satellite delivery into orbit. Alpha is not alone in this mission: there are other small launch systems throughout the industry working through their early years, like Relativity's Terran 1 and Astra's "Rocket 3". But Alpha is bigger, and powered by four of Firefly's Reaver engines, making it capable of lifting payloads of 2,200 pounds into low-Earth orbit.
Firefly's test flight was supposed to launch on September 11, but the mission was scrubbed due to an unexpected drop in helium pressure. Weather forecasts then pushed the mission to September 30 when it was aborted just after engine ignition. This led to Alpha launching today.