On Thursday night, only minutes after a faultless liftoff on its first attempt to reach space, the Alpha rocket of Firefly, a small launch business, burst mid-flight. The rocket was destroyed, according to Space Force officials, when it began to veer laterally off course just after reaching supersonic speeds. Firefly claims it is collaborating with regulators to determine what went wrong.
Alpha, a ten-story two-stage rocket, launched at 9:59 p.m. ET on Thursday from the Vandenberg Space Force base in California with the purpose of delivering a cargo of tiny commercial satellites into space at no cost to the owners. The launch was risky because it was Firefly’s first mission, so failure was a possibility. The rocket began swinging to the side, tilting horizontally, two and a half minutes after liftoff, when it fell short of reaching its maximum aerodynamic pressure.
At that point, the rocket burst, as a dramatic outcome of Space Launch Delta 30 intervening to prevent the launch vehicle from becoming a public safety hazard. In a statement, Firefly said it’s too early to identify what caused the disaster, but that they’ll conduct a thorough investigation with the Space Force and the FAA. It further stated that no one was injured as a result of the explosion.
Despite the explosion, Firefly claimed to have achieved a number of significant mission goals, including a successful first stage ignition, a clean liftoff from the pad, and supersonic flight. All of these aspects, according to the corporation, resulted in test flight data that would help with the rocket’s testing and development.
Alpha is one of a handful of tiny launchers in development across the industry, including Astra’s “Rocket 3” and Relativity’s Terran 1. Alpha has been in development for more than a decade and is intended to launch small satellites into orbit. The Alpha rocket is slightly larger than its competitors, powered by four Reaver engines and capable of carrying 2,200 pounds of payload into low-Earth orbit.
Firefly is hoping to sell a dedicated launch on Alpha for $15 million. It will be capable of carrying heavier payloads to orbit than Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, which is nearing the end of its operational life, or Virgin Orbit’s air-launched LauncherOne rocket, which launched its first commercial payload into space in June. All of these rockets are intended to address the growing demand for launch services from the small satellite industry.