Alpha adds to tally of exploding rockets, takes out space sail prototype with it

Firefly Aerospace rounds out a wobbly week for rocket fanciers


Video The sudden and explosive end of Firefly Aerospace's first test flight of its Alpha rocket rounded out a hat-trick of woe for rocket fans this week.

The Alpha, which Firefly has pitched as being able to loft 1,000kg to low earth orbit (LEO), finally left its pad at California's Vandenberg Space Force Base at 01:59 UTC on 3 September, only to tumble and explode around two-and-a-half minutes into the flight of the booster.

Observers of the launch were treated to the sight of the rocket lurching perilously before exploding as the trip was terminated. You can watch the full thing below:

Youtube Video

The failure appears to have happened as the vehicle reached supersonic speeds. In a statement, Firefly Aerospace noted that it had managed to achieve some of its objectives: lighting the engines, leaving the pad, and "progression to supersonic speed."

Abruptly turning into a fireball was, unsurprisingly, not on the wish list.

Attached to the rocket was a Purdue University-developed gadget dubbed Spinnaker3, which was supposed to deploy a prototype drag sail in space in an experiment that could have helped clear the way to less debris in orbit. The device was destroyed in the blast.

David Spencer, who worked on the Spinnaker3 project as an adjunct associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue, told The Register:

While the Purdue University team regrets the loss of the Spinnaker3 drag sail due to the Firefly launch failure, we benefited greatly from the process of getting the payload ready for delivery to launch.

Over 30 students at Purdue and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo [California Polytechnic State University] participated in the Spinnaker3 design, fabrication, testing, and launch integration, providing valuable hands-on engineering experience. The Spinnaker3 prototype drag sail provided the basis for a commercial product line of dragsails that is currently being developed by Vestigo Aerospace and Purdue University under a NASA Small Business Innovative Research contract.

We are already developing the next generation of drag sails, incorporating lessons learned from the Firefly payload development and testing.

The Alpha is a two-stage vehicle. The first stage is propelled by four Reaver 1 engines, and the second by a single Lightning 1 power plant. Firefly plans two launches a month. Its follow-up rocket, the Beta, is expected to send up to 8,000 kg into LEO.

Firefly has yet to draw conclusions with regard to the root cause of what it delicately called "the anomaly."

"Our engineers are currently combing through thousands of lines of ground and flight system telemetry," it said, "to better understand what occurred."

To be fair, this is the first attempt at flight made by Firefly. Earlier this week old-hand at launch anomalies, US-based Astra, demonstrated the cleverness of its guidance controller with an impressive sideways slide of its booster after an engine gave out at launch.

And then there was the wild ride of Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, which has attracted the attention of American regulators as it turned out the rocket plane went off course during its descent.

The Alpha launch had been delayed due to an aborted countdown. However, that issue was resolved and the lift-off went ahead. Firefly said there were no injuries resulting from the subsequent failure. ®

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