Firefly’s Alpha spacecraft successfully initiates VICTUS NOX rapid response mission

Texas-based small launch company Firefly Aerospace has successfully launched its Alpha rocket for the third time, as part of a dedicated mission for the U.S. Space Force. The mission, known as VICTUS NOX, aimed to demonstrate the United States’ capability to quickly place a satellite in orbit in response to a national security threat. Firefly was awarded the mission under the Orbital Services Program 4 contract.

The payload for the VICTUS NOX mission was manufactured by Millennium Space, a subsidiary of The Boeing Company. Although most specifics about the satellite are unknown, it has been confirmed that it will perform a space domain awareness mission, tracking and monitoring other objects in orbit and predicting possible orbital threats.

The Alpha rocket, developed by Firefly Aerospace, is a two-stage small-lift orbital-class rocket. With a maximum payload capacity of 1,170 kilograms to low-Earth orbit (LEO) and standing at approximately 29.5 meters tall, Alpha has a higher mass-to-orbit capability than other small satellite launch vehicles, such as Rocket Lab’s Electron.

Firefly’s first orbital launch attempt with Alpha in September 2021 ended in failure due to an engine shutdown. However, the company successfully reached orbit with Alpha on its second flight, known as the “To the Black” mission. The satellites were deployed at a lower-than-planned altitude and reentered Earth’s atmosphere approximately one week after launch.

The first stage of the Alpha rocket features four Reaver 1 engines, fueled by RP-1 kerosene and liquid oxygen (LOX). Each Reaver 1 motor produces a maximum thrust of approximately 200 kN. The second stage of the rocket is powered by the Lightning 1 engine, also fueled by RP-1 and LOX. The majority of Alpha’s construction consists of carbon-fiber composites, including the 2.2-meter diameter payload fairing that housed the VICTUS NOX payload.

Preparations for the VICTUS NOX mission began in early 2023, with Firefly conducting final qualification tests of the Alpha rocket stages at its testing facility in Texas. The rocket stages were then shipped to the launch site in California. Prior to launch, Firefly teams performed final pad checkouts and loaded propellants into the rocket.

The launch of the Alpha rocket for the VICTUS NOX mission occurred on September 14, 2023, from Space Launch Complex 2 West at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The rocket’s onboard computers took control of the countdown, and liftoff took place following the release of the hold-down clamps. The first stage engines shut down approximately two and a half minutes after liftoff, followed by stage separation and ignition of the second stage engine. The payload fairing was jettisoned, exposing the VICTUS NOX payload to space. The second stage engine continued to burn until shutdown occurred approximately eight minutes after liftoff.

Firefly Aerospace has plans for multiple launches in 2023, with another Alpha rocket set to launch the ELaNa 43 CubeSat mission for NASA. The company is also developing its Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV), a two-stage medium-lift rocket with a planned maximum payload capacity of 16,000 kg to LEO. Additionally, Firefly is building the Blue Ghost lunar lander for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative and has won a third CLPS contract award to provide radio frequency calibration services for the Lunar Surface Electromagnetic Experiment at Night (LuSEE-Night) telescope.

Overall, Firefly Aerospace’s successful launch of the Alpha rocket for the VICTUS NOX mission demonstrates its capabilities as a small launch company and its commitment to providing responsive and reliable space launch services for various missions.