The first rocket launched by private space company Firefly has exploded just minutes after it exploded from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
Firefly was attempting to reach Earth orbit with its Alpha rocket when the vehicle exploded in a fireball over the Pacific Ocean about 2 minutes and 30 seconds later.
The missile was launched from the SLC-2 complex at the base near Lompoc at 6:59 p.m. PT after they aborted their first attempt at launch at 6:00 p.m. PT.
Company tweeted about the incident: ‘Alpha experienced an anomaly during the climb of the first stage that resulted in the loss of the vehicle. As we gather more information, more details will be provided.”
In a follow-up message, Firefly said: “Before the countdown began, the Range cleared the path and all surrounding areas to minimize the risk to Firefly personnel, base personnel and the general public. We will continue to work with the Range, following all safety protocols.”
Firefly Aerospace’s first Alpha rocket suffered a catastrophic explosion on Thursday as they attempted to launch into Earth orbit
The Alpha rocket was intended to reach supersonic speed seconds after takeoff, but did not appear to reach its desired speed until minutes after takeoff
The company tweeted about the explosion, reporting that they “experienced an anomaly during the first ascent” and are gathering information to determine the cause of the failure.
The Alpha rocket was launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California and exploded over the Pacific Ocean
Private space company Firefly launched its first orbital Alpha rocket which exploded minutes after takeoff (credit: @ShumanProjects)
Firefly’s Alpha rocket was 95 feet long and was designed to launch up to 1,000 kilograms of payload into low Earth orbit, which categorizes the rocket as a medium lift launch
The Alpha rocket was intended to reach supersonic speed seconds after takeoff, but it appears to have taken minutes to break the sound barrier. Moments later, the rocket exploded.
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics, explained that even though the spacecraft exploded during the first stage, it reached MaxQ, which will continue to provide the company with “good data on the first stage engine.”
MaxQ is the state where the rocket reaches maximum dynamic pressure. This critical stage will inform the design of the vehicle’s structural load.
McDowell speculates that the first failure occurred 2 minutes and 29 seconds after launch “when a cloud of vapor escapes from the vehicle,” followed 2 seconds later by the fiery explosion.
But he insists that “it is premature to conclude that with certainty.”
Company executives had previously emphasized that the launch was primarily a test flight with the aim of capturing as much data as possible.
The day before the launch, Firefly’s chief operating officer, Lauren Lyons, echoed that sentiment. “Our really big goal is to get Alpha into space. If we can get into orbit, even better,” she said Space news.
“Our goals are to collect as much data as possible and take Alpha as far as possible,” Lyons said.
Chief Executive Officer Tom Markusic said in an interview with Space News the same day that the data collection would be a success.
Firefly originally planned to launch their first Alpha rocket in December, but “run into trouble” and was eventually moved to September 2.
The company plans to launch their Alpha rocket twice a month so customers can fly on their schedule and in the orbit they want
The medium-lift launch cost $15 million and failed to reach supersonic speed seconds after takeoff, as expected in the mission statement distributed before launch
The company tweeted that the missile “experienced an anomaly during the ascent of the first stage that resulted in its loss” and claimed they are collecting information about the failure.
‘It’s a flight test, so getting the data is a success. The more data we get, the better,” he said.
Firefly’s Alpha rocket was 95 feet long and was designed to launch up to 1,000 kilograms of payload into low Earth orbit, costing $15 million per launch. These stats place the medium lift launch rating alongside launches from Space X, Virgin Orbit, Rocket Lab, and Relativity Space.
Firefly originally planned to launch their first Alpha rocket in December, but “ran into some issues with the launch site readiness,” Markusic said.
They were also reportedly held back by a major delay from the supplier who supplied the missile’s flight termination system.
Firefly has raised more than $175 million and is valued at over $1 billion and adds the company to the list of unicorn companies.
Thursday’s failed launch isn’t the company’s first defeat. The first iteration of Texas-based start-up, Firefly Space Systems, has filed for bankruptcy. The company relaunched as Firefly Aerospace in May 2017, primarily thanks to Noosphere Ventures.
The aerospace company “is committed to providing cheap and easy access to space for small payloads” and is addressing “the market’s need for flexible access to space,” according to their website.
They are one of many new commercial launch providers looking to break into the growing small satellite launch market. The Firefly Alpha rocket is designed to target the growing market for launching small satellites into Earth orbit.
Their rocket aims to “provide the highest payload at the lowest cost per kilogram in orbit” to “provide launch options for both full-vehicle and shared-car customers.” The company plans to launch these rockets twice a month to offer their customers a flexible schedule and choice of job, according to their site.
They have already secured commercial and civilian launch contracts from the likes of NASA and General Atomics.
Thursday’s failure puts Firefly behind its competitors, including major companies such as Elon Musk’s Space X and Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin and some lesser-known companies. In this rapidly growing field, Firefly struggles to overtake their opponents.
Rocket Lab has been launching small payloads with its Electron booster since 2018. Virgin Orbit has launched two successful missions after starting operational flights this year.
Astra reached space during a test flight last year, but has yet to put a payload into orbit.
When launching news models, explosions are a risk that space companies expect to take.
Along with their many successful launches, Space X has recently recorded at least nine explosions with their SpaceX Starship, according to space.com.