Firefly software snafu sends Lockheed satellite on short-lived space safari

IF (orbit == wrong) THEN oops;

Updated A software error on the part of Firefly Aerospace doomed Lockheed Martin's Electronic Steerable Antenna (ESA) demonstrator to a shorter-than-expected orbital life following a botched Alpha launch.

According to Firefly's mission update, the error was in the Guidance, Navigation, and Control (GNC) software algorithm, preventing the system from sending the necessary pulse commands to the Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters before the relight of the second stage.

The result was that Lockheed's payload was left in the wrong orbit, and Firefly's engineers were left scratching their heads.

The launch on December 22, 2023 – dubbed "Fly the Lightning" – seemed to go well at first. It was the fourth for the Alpha, and after Firefly finally registered a successful launch a few months earlier in September, initial indications looked good. However, a burn of the second stage to circularize the orbit did not go to plan, and Lockheed's satellite was left in the wrong orbit, with little more than weeks remaining until it re-entered the atmosphere.

As it turned out, the Lockheed team completed their primary mission objectives. The payload was, after all, designed to demonstrate faster on-orbit sensor calibration. Just perhaps not quite that fast.

Software issues aboard spacecraft are becoming depressingly commonplace. A recent example was the near disastrous first launch of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner, where iffy code could have led, in NASA parlance, to "spacecraft loss." In a recent interview with The Register, former Voyager scientist Garry Hunt questioned if the commercial spaceflight sector of today would take the same approach to quality as the boffins of the past.

Firefly did not elaborate exactly when Alpha would launch again. It is currently working on fixing the GNC software issue and updating its processes and procedures to ensure there is no repeat of the problem. It said: "Alpha will fly again in the coming months."

The company has a busy few years ahead of it, assuming there are no further incidents with its rockets. As well as working through its manifest of Alpha launches, Firefly is also designing Miranda engines destined for use in Northrop Grumman's Antares 330 and the company's own Medium Launch Vehicle. The first hot-fire test of the engine took place in November 2023. ®

Updated to add on February 22:

Lockheed Martin got in touch with more details about its demonstrator. The satellite and payload were operationalized in less than four days, and more than 100 on-orbit tests were conducted.

Bob Behnken, director of IGNITE Technology Acceleration, Lockheed Martin Space, said: "While the ESA payload was not originally intended for operations in very low earth orbit (VLEO), the team was able to successfully adapt to operating in this unique environment.

"We leaned on our own engineers, the Terran Orbital satellite bus team and Firefly Aerospace's Alpha rocket team to help us establish a 'go fast' approach in driving this demonstration forward.

"I've seen a lot of space in my lifetime, and few companies could pull off what Lockheed Martin did with this mission. The collective years of experience and talent the Lockheed Martin team possesses positively impacted these outstanding results and reinforces confidence and commitment for future customer applications."

Behnken is a Space Shuttle veteran, and also flew on the SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission.

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