Firefly Aerospace's Alpha Rocket in Review
Firefly Aerospace was previously known as Firefly Space Systems. But when it was at the brink of bankruptcy in 2016, Max Polyakov acquired all their assets and intellectual property.
After the acquisition, that company was rebranded as Firefly Aerospace. They have hit several important milestones over the years. Building their Launchpad and testing their launcher rockets are two of them.
How is Firefly's Alpha Designed?
Firefly was waiting for its final launch test earlier this year. But things didn't go as planned, as the world was hit by the Covid Pandemic. Almost all businesses shut-down to bend the curve. This is why the launch window for Firefly's Alpha was postponed.
But now everything is picking up the pace again. Firefly Alpha will go for its final test launch somewhere in November-December this year.
Alpha was a launch rocket that had a payload capacity of 300-500 kg. But Polyakov knew that to stand out, they have to make a launcher rocket that is light and can take higher numbers of payload per each trip. This is why they initiated a redesign for their Alpha rocket.
After three years of hard work, they finally came up with a design that could carry 1,000 payloads into space. Moreover, when necessary, Alpha's payload capacity can be further expanded to 1,300 kg. Firefly increased payload capacity while keeping the overall weight and diameter (6 foot) of the rocket at a minimum level.
Alpha 2.0 is a 95 feet tall rocket launcher that has a 2-layer structure. Its payload storage area has a diameter of 6.6 feet and is covered with a carbon fiber composite. Both stages are covered in a composite airframe. The first stage of the rocket is responsible for taking it into space. Once there, the second stage is activated, and it places the satellite into the low Earth orbit.
To come up with an optimized and lighter structure, the Firefly team has used efficient propulsion systems and a higher thrust engine. With Alpha rockets, Firefly has switched from a high-pressure tank to a motorized pump.
Firefly vs. SpaceX
Firefly is not a direct competitor to SpaceX. Firefly serves a different market segment than a notorious space giant. It aims to make it easier and cheaper for small satellites to be sent into LEO. On the other hand, SpaceX serves companies with much bigger cargoes. Just like other such rockets, i.e., India's PSLV and Rocket Lab's Electron, SpaceX's Falcon 9 is mainly used in ride-sharing missions.
Moreover, Firefly's Alpha requires only $15 Million per launch. In contrast to that, the Falcon9 single launch cost is $65 Million. Firefly has already started working with smaller commercial companies for launching satellites for observation, scientific research, and smaller-scale communication needs.
Today, the future seems bright for Firefly Aerospace. They are already working with Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. They have signed an agreement to take multiple payloads on Firefly Aerospace rockets. If their launch test at the end of the year is also successful, they hope to gain a larger portion of the CubeSat market.