Featured image credit: Firefly
(Subject to change)
September 11, 2022 – 22:00-02:00 UTC | 15:00-19:00 PDT
FLTA002 To The Black
(What rocket company is launching it?)
(Who’s paying for this?)
Firefly, NASA, Teachers in Space, Libre Space Foundation, AMSAT Spain, FOSSA Systems
SLC-2, Vandenberg Space Force Base, USA
12.1 kg (~26.7 lb)
Where are the satellites going?
To a 300 km low Earth orbit (LEO) at 137° inclination
Will they be attempting to recover the first stage?
No, this is not a capability of Alpha
Where will the first stage land?
It will splash down into the Pacific Ocean
Will they be attempting to recover the fairings?
No, this is not a capability of Alpha
Are these fairings new?
This will be the:
– 2nd launch of Alpha
– 2nd launch for Firefly
– 1st launch of Firefly in 2022
– 10th launch from Vandenberg in 2022
– 116th orbital launch attempt of 2022
Where to watch
Join Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut, as he and Firefly will go live at approximately T-60 minutes with the official livestream; come ask questions and join the conversation live!
What Does All This Mean?
Firefly Aerospace is the next private rocket company that aims to achieve orbit with its second launch attempt of their brand new Alpha launch vehicle. Alpha will lift off from Vandenberg Space Force Base, USA, and targets a 300 km low Earth orbit (LEO), in which it will deploy multiple payloads. On board of the FLTA002 To The Black mission will be multiple CubeSats and PicoSats, with most of them being copies of satellites that were lost during the failure of Firefly’s FLTA001 DREAM launch.
Originally founded as Firefly Space Systems in 2014, Firefly planned to develop a 400 kg to orbit Alpha launch vehicle. After winning several contracts, including a NASA launch contract, Firefly was forced to shut down in late 2016 after a large investor dropped out of their Series A funding round due to financial impacts from BREXIT. After Firefly declared bankruptcy in early 2017, Max Polyakov’s Noosphere Ventures purchased all assets of Firefly Space Systems and restarted the company in May of 2017 as Firefly Aerospace, fully funding the development of the newly designed 1,000 kg to orbit Alpha. Five years later, Firefly is now on track to become a new member in the club of orbit-capable launch providers.
FLTA002 To The Black
After Firefly’s first launch of Alpha, FLTA001 DREAM, failed shortly after lift off, many of the payloads lost will experience a revival and again fly on Alpha as part of the FLTA002 To The Black mission. A total of two CubeSats and six PicoSats will be hitching a ride to LEO this time.
FLTA002 To The Black Payloads
Teachers in Space – Serenity
In 2009, Teachers in Space was founded by the Space Frontier. The commercialization of space was beginning to gain more speed, so the Foundation wanted to find a way to put teachers on suborbital flights. By doing this, they would be able to return to their kids and give them first hand accounts of what an experience like this was like.
Originally, Teachers in Space were trying to get teachers to send in experiments to be tried on flights to space on various launch vehicles. In an interview with Everyday Astronaut, Elizabeth Kennick, President of Teachers in Space for over a decade, said, “We had only one person enter in our contest to send experiments to space”. Very little interest was able to be gained. That’s when Kennick turned to NASA, specifically the NASA Ames Research Center, which suggested trying balloon flights. “And they were absolutely right,” Kennick said.
Teachers in Space brought in a teacher from Columbus, Georgia, United States to help conduct the first balloon flight. This was a tremendous learning experience for them, which enabled them to do continuous balloon flights from then all the way to present day. The ultimate goal of Teachers in Space is to work to get teachers on a flight to space, but the steps taken here are necessary to achieve that goal.
For this mission in particular, the Teachers in Space program will be sending a cubesat called Serenity on Firefly’s inaugural flight of their Alpha rocket. Serenity aims to provide educational resources to teachers and students around the world. After being placed in a low Earth orbit, Serenity will be activated and will start communications. It hosts a suite of data sensors and an Earth oriented camera. Anyone with a satellite receiver will be able to connect to Serenity. Teachers in Space suggest a local HAM radio club, which might have one. For more information, visit teachers-in-space.com.
As far as electronics on Serenity goes, Teachers in Space are using a simple Raspberry Pi, which anyone can buy and program themselves. The satellite is based on a 3U satellite bus and has radio transmission capabilities. Also on board are two Geiger counters, which measure and detect radioactive activity. These Geiger counters are identical with the exception of a fiber cloth to test its effectiveness as radiation shielding.
Another experiment is a blockchain experiment that will help to test the communications capabilities of the satellite with ground stations and with multiple satellites, once that becomes a possibility for Teacher in Space. Other typical instruments include GPS, a spectrometer, and a pressure sensor. All of these are simply on the satellite to see what data they can gather.
Furthermore, there is a camera mounted on Serenity, which will be fixed on Earth via a gyro control system. With a resolution of 126 meters per pixel, the camera will be able to produce images for Teachers in Space and others who want them. These images will not have a very high resolution, but will be a great first opportunity to see Earth from space. Anyone who is interested can request a place on Earth for a photo to be taken through the form on teachers-in-space.com.
NASA – TechEdSat-15
NASA’s TechEdSat program, supported by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, aims to help college and university students gather experience in building and operating satellites. In this program, NASA researchers mentor students to evaluate new technologies for use in small satellites.
The TechEdSat series focuses on bringing small payloads back to Earch from LEO, advancing EDL (entry, descent, and landing) systems. This will allow more researchers to access cost-effective flight opportunities to test new technologies.
So far, each TechEdSat intentionally burnt up during reentry to verify that the spacecrafts work and are safe. Eventually, the program aims to successfully reenter and recover a CubeSat from a defined landing spot back on Earth.
The TechEdSat mission patch for TES-15. (Credit: NASA)
TES-15 is a 3 U CubeSat weighing 4.15 kg hitching a ride on Firefly’s FLTA002 To The Black mission. The satellite is a cooperation between NASA and San Jose State University, and is equipped with a deployable exo-brake, an exo-atmospheric braking device.
The spacecraft will deploy its exo-brake after being ejected from the dispenser to de-orbit itself precisely through drag-modulation and deeper penetration into Earth’s atmosphere. Furthermore, teams hope to validate its communications system for future EDL system flights. The Beacon And Memory Board Interface, or BAMBI, is another experiment located on TES-15 and aims to optimize internal and external data transfer from the CubeSat.
The TES-15 CubeSat during final integration. (Credit: Firefly)
Libre Space Foundation – PicoBus – Qubik-1/-2
Libre Space Foundation is a Greek non-profit organization based in Athens, Greece focused on developing open source technologies for space, including the relatively new field of PocketQubes. PocketQubes, compared to CubeSats, are even smaller satellites where 1P satellites have a form factor of 5 cm x 5 cm x 5 cm and a maximum weight of 250 g. Their current solutions in the field of PocketQubes include among other things deployment, identification, tracking, and communication.
PicoBus is Libre Space’s open source PocketQube dispenser that can deploy up to eight PocketQubes. On this mission their dispenser will deploy a total of six PocketQubes, with two, Qubik-1 and Qubik-2, being their own test satellites. Both satellites are 1P PocketQubes with a mass of less than 250 g each. Qubik-1 and Qubik-2 have a lifespan of approximately three weeks on orbit.
During this mission, the organization will focus on the Launch and Early Operations Phase (LEOP), in which they will conduct their radio amateur experiments with their two test satellites. The LEOP is extremely crucial for most operations as operators often need to identify their satellites to establish communication and start operation. While this being relatively easy for dedicated missions or bigger satellites, it is way more complex for CubeSats and PocketQubes as they are often released in very close proximity to other satellites of those types. Furthermore, the often limited lifespan of those satellites makes it even more important to establish communications.
Qubik-1 and Qubik-2 will focus on exactly that problem and will conduct amateur radio communications, orbit determination, and satellite identification experiments by exploiting Doppler variations in collaboration with the ground segment of the mission. The ground segment will receive data from the satellites with the help of the open source global network of satellite ground-stations called SatNOGS. Libre Space has developed a telecommunications solution called SatNOGS COMMS that is suitable for most small satellites and featuring tight integration with the SatNOGS network.
Everything developed at Libre Space Foundation is open-source and can be found and accessed on their GitLab page. In that spirit, the organization plans on sharing all their scientific findings of their mission and has attached The Libre Space Manifesto that can be seen underneath on both satellites.
The four other satellites flying inside and being deployed by PicoBus are Fossa Systems’ 1P FossaSat-1b and 2P FossaSat-2, and AMSAT-EA’s 1.5P GENESIS-L and GENESIS-N. Their final testing and integration took place in October 2020 and was live-streamed by Libre Space on their YouTube channel.
AMSAT-EA – GENESIS-L/N
AMSAT-EA is a Spanish non-profit radio-amateur organization founded in 2017 with the goal of enabling radio-amateurs to exchange digital messages over vast distances. AMSAT-EA has built two 1.5P (7.5 cm x 5 cm x 5 cm) PockeQubes called GENESIS-L (light) and GENESIS-N (normal). Students from the European University of Madrid and from the Higher Technical School of Engineering (ICAI) in Madrid have helped with mechanical, attitude and thermal design, and with parts of the communications system respectively.
The satellites are entirely made from COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf) parts and feature a 2 MHz CPU that will act as a low speed digital regenerative repeater to allow Morse code retransmissions between distant users. Furthermore, the satellites will emit beacons with several types of telemetry and 20 different Morse code messages with greetings in Spanish and English.
GENESIS-L and GENESIS-N will both sport an experimental propulsion module. The AIS-gPPT3-1C thruster is a Micro Pulsed Plasma Thruster developed and manufactured by Applied Ion Systems. This thruster uses Teflon as fuel, is designed to fire up to 500 pulses, and could raise the satellites’ orbits by up to nine meters in one month. The satellite’s flight computer will activate the thruster one week after launch and will fire it once every orbit until the fuel is depleted.
FOSSA Systems – FossaSat-1b/2
FOSSA Systems is a company based in Spain creating so called PocketQubes (1P PocketQube is defined as 5 cm x 5 cm x 5 cm) for Internet of Things (IoT) and Earth observation (EO) use. On this mission, FOSSA Systems flies its 1P FossaSat-1b and 2P FossaSat-2 together with Libre Space Foundation. Both satellites will be deployed by Libre Space’s PicoBus dispenser.
FossaSat-1b is an upgraded version of the company’s first launched PocketQube called FossaSat-1. FossaSat-1 was successfully launched on Rocket Lab’s 10th mission Running Out Of Fingers and became the first PocketQube launched by Spain. Compared to FossaSat-1, FossaSat-1b doesn’t feature deployable solar panels, but overall upgraded systems.
FossaSat-2 is a test bed for FOSSA System’s future FossaSat-2 Evolved satellite. This 2P test satellite will feature several experimental instruments as well as novel EO payload. On board are a fully magnetorquer-based Attitude Determination and Control System (ADCS), and a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) experiment supported by the ESA Galileo Science Office for studying PocketQube tracking in LEO. Furthermore, FossaSat-2 sports improved low powered LoRa IoT store & forward capability, Gaussian frequency-shift keying (GFSK), and Morse downlink.
FLTA002 Mission Profile
Launch day begins with final pad checkouts eight hours prior to launch. For the next two hours, Firefly powers up Alpha and does sensor checks before beginning to load helium, RP-1, and LOx at T-06:00:00, at T-05:15:00, and at T-03:40:00 respectively. Alpha enters terminal count 20 minutes before lift off and ignites its first stage engines about two seconds before the hold-down clamps release the rocket into the sky.
Shortly after lift off, Alpha will fly north-west heading at a 138° inclination. About a minute after launch the vehicle is supersonic breaking the sound barrier, and experiences MaxQ only seconds later at T+00:01:16. MaxQ stands for maximum aerodynamic pressure and signifies the point in the vehicles’ trajectory, in which the combination of the density of Earth’s atmosphere and the vehicle’s speed create the most stress on the vehicles’ structure.
Stage 1 and stage 2 will separate at T+02:50 after the four Reaver engines on Alpha’s first stage have depleted all the propellant. The second stage engine will ignite shortly after the two stages have separated. Next up is fairing jettison, which occurs at T+00:03:13.
The second stage burns for approximately five minutes after which it will shut down and coast up to apogee where it will perform a circularization burn demonstrating on orbit relighting capability of their second stage engine Lightning. After Alpha’s second stage has entered a circular orbit it will beginn to deploy the spacecrafts on board. After the last of the eight satellites have been deployed, Alpha’s second stage will enter its passivation phase and the mission will conclude.
FLTA002 Mission Timeline*
From Lift OffEventsT-08:00:00Final Pad CheckoutsT-07:00:00Power Up of AlphaT-06:50:00Sensor ChecksT-06:00:00Helium Load BeginsT-05:15:00Fuel Load BeginsT-04:30:00Pad ClearT-03:40:00LOx Load BeginsT-00:20:00Terminal CountT-00:00:01.79Ignition of Stage 1T+-00:00:00Lift Off!T+00:01:07Mach 1T+00:01:16Maximum Aerodynamic Pressure (MaxQ)T+00:02:47Main Engine Cut Off (MECO)T+00:02:50Stage SeparationT+00:02:53Stage 2 IgnitionT+00:03:13Fairing JettisonT+00:08:46Second Engine Cut Off 1 (SECO 1)T+00:54:08Stage 2 RelightT+00:54:10SECO 2T+00:59:37Payload DeployT+01:44:00Passivation*All times are approximate and based on FLTA001’s mission timeline
Alpha is a small lift launch vehicle developed and built by Firefly Aerospace. With a payload capacity of 1,170 kg and 745 kg to a 200 km LEO at 28.5° inclination and a 500 km SSO, respectively, Alpha is one of the biggest small lift launch vehicles. It is a two stage liquid-fueled Rocket utilizing highly refined kerosene (RP-1) and liquid oxygen (LOx) as fuel and oxidizer. Alpha stands a total of 29.48 m (~96.7 ft) tall while being 1.8 m (~71 in) in diameter with a 2.21 m (~87 in) fairing. The rocket is entirely made from advanced carbon-fiber composite, which results in a lighter, but still strong vehicle, able to lift more payload than comparable rockets made from metal.
Alpha’s first stage is powered by four Reaver 1 engines producing a total of 736.1 kN (~165,000 lbf) at lift off. The Reaver 1 engine is a “simple” combustion tap-off cycle engine where hot exhaust gasses are driving a single-shaft turbo pump, which feeds the engine with propellants. This makes the engine relatively simple, but also complicated to start. During this complicated start up procedure, Firefly uses TEA-TEB as an ignition fluid, which causes the green flame at start-up. This will be the first time that a tap-off cycle engine will fly on an orbital class rocket. Up until now there has only been Blue Origin’s BE-3 engine as another tap-off cycle engine that has been flown on a vehicle.
Each Reaver engine produces ~184 kN of thrust at a specific impulse (ISP) of 295.6 seconds at lift off. The maximum total thrust of the rocket is 801kN (~180,000 lbf) in a vacuum. Furthermore, each engine features single axis gimballing resulting in pitch, yaw and roll control when all four engines are combined.
The second stage is powered by a single Lightning 1 engine producing 70.1 kN at an ISP of 322 seconds. Furthermore, the engine’s nozzle extension gets cooled by the exhaust gas of the turbopump. Just like Reaver, Lightning is also a tap-off cycle engine and uses the same TEA-TEB as its ignition fluid.
FLTA001 DREAM Failure
Shortly after successful ignition of all four Reaver engines and a nominal lift off of Alpha, the rocket experienced a premature engine shut down of its engine two on the first stage at approximately T+14s. This was caused by a main fuel valve that closed off the fuel supply to the engine. The valve closed due to a loss of electrical signal caused by a faulty connector.
Firefly’s Alpha rocket during ascent after its engine 2 shut down prematurely. (Credit: Firefly)
The under-powered vehicle continued to ascend accelerating gradually. At approximately T+2:16 the vehicle reached supersonic speeds. Due to the lack of control authority caused by the early engine two shut down, and the aerodynamics drastically changing in the trans-sonic environment, the vehicle tumbled out of control. The range transmitted a termination signal at T+2:27 after the rocket completed a total of one and a half somersaults.
Firefly’s Alpha rocket tumbling out of control with its fairing and payloads breaking away. (Credit: Firefly)
The engine section of the rocket plunged back to the ground and survived the impact in relatively good condition, allowing the teams to gather the remains and analyze the experienced anomaly. Firefly’s Alpha rocket gathered around two and a half minutes of valuable flight data that helped the teams to further improve the vehicle’s design with the aim of reaching orbit with FLTA002 To The Black. Alpha reached an altitude of approximately 15 km when the flight was terminated.