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With orbital launch, Firefly takes an early lead in the 1-ton rocket race

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Since SpaceX reached orbit for the first time in 2008 with the Falcon 1 rocket, a handful of other companies such as Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit have developed and successfully launched small, liquid-fueled rockets. But all of these boosters, including the Falcon 1, could lift, at most, a few hundred kilograms into low Earth orbit.

A newer generation of companies, however, has decided that their first rockets should be larger, capable of lifting about 1 metric ton, or a little bit more, to orbit. Officials with these companies have said that, in their view of the market, the micro-launchers just don’t have enough lift capacity to meet the needs of today’s satellite customers.

So these companies—such as Firefly Aerospace, Relativity Space, ABL Space Systems in the United States, and Isar Aerospace and Rocket Factory Augsburg in Europe—have pushed to develop a larger rocket as their first vehicle. And this weekend, the first of these companies, Firefly, reached orbit with its Alpha rocket.

Need to execute

Powered by four Reaver engines, the Alpha rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base at 12:01 am local time (07:01 UTC) on Saturday, delivering several small payloads into low Earth orbit after relighting its upper stage. This success followed an initial launch attempt in September 2021, where one of the four Reaver engines failed during ascent.

In an interview shortly before Saturday’s launch attempt, Firefly chief executive Bill Weber told Ars that the company was ready to break out not just as a launch company, but as a provider of spaceflight services. “Firefly is at the point where the only thing holding them back is execution,” Weber said.

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This is why Saturday’s flight was critical. Firefly has a number of programs in development, including the ambitious “Blue Ghost” lunar lander that could fly to the Moon as early as 2023. The company is also developing an in-space reusable transport vehicle to go between Earth and the Moon, as well as other orbits. Finally, the company is working on the “Miranda” rocket engine, which will be used by Northrop Grumman for its Antares rocket, as well as a brand-new medium-lift vehicle the companies are jointly developing.

“Firefly needs maturity and scale to achieve its potential,” said Weber, who became the company’s new CEO earlier this year. He became the company’s permanent leader after co-founder Tom Markusic stepped down as chief executive in June. As of Alpha’s first flight, Firefly has about 450 employees, many of them at its headquarters in Texas, near Austin.

A crowded field

While Firefly has big plans for in-space services and the Moon, the biggest near-term challenge is moving Alpha from development into operations. Weber said the company will strive to launch another Alpha this year, before flying six times in 2023. Firefly aims to reach a cadence of one launch a month by the year 2024.

Weber said there is significant demand for launch services in the 1-plus ton class, especially for proven vehicles. The key to this competition will be getting into the market early with a safe and reliable rocket.

“Just as there are eyes on us, there will be eyes on the rest of the market as well,” he said. “We have to make sure we take care of things that Firefly can control. Regardless of what happens with Relativity or ABL, if we are successful in reaching orbit, then our business is going to be just fine. Firefly’s plan does not require others to fail, it requires us to succeed.”

The company’s partnership with Northrop Grumman is also notable, given that the major defense contractor had its choice of US rocket companies. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Northrop needed to find a new provider of engines for its Antares vehicle, which launches cargo to the International Space Station for NASA. It announced a partnership with Firefly this spring to jointly develop a new first stage.

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This new Antares 330 rocket will use seven Miranda engines and significantly increase the payload capacity of the existing Antares launch vehicle, which can lift about 8 metric tons to low Earth orbit. Firefly plans to hot fire test the Miranda engine for the first time during the first half of 2023 and is confident in the design because it is based on a scaled-up version of the now flight-proven Reaver engine.

Source: Ars Technica

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