FLTA003 VICTUS NOX (TacRS-3)| Alpha

Launch Time
September 14, 2023 – 19:28 PDT | 02:28 UTC
Mission Name
FLTA003 VICTUS NOX (TacRS-3)
Launch Provider
(What rocket company launched it?)
Firefly Aerospace
Customer
(Who paid for this?)
United States Space Force Space Systems Command
Rocket
Alpha
Launch Location
SLC-2, Vandenberg Space Force Base, USA
Payload mass
Classified
Where did the satellite go?
Low Earth Orbit
Did they attempt to recover the first stage?
No, this is not a capability of Alpha
Where did the first stage land?
It splashed down into the Pacific Ocean
Did they attempt to recover the fairings?
No, this is not a capability of Alpha
Were these fairings new?
Yes
This was the:
– 3rd launch of Alpha
– 3rd launch for Firefly
– 1st launch of Firefly in 2023
Where to watch
There was no livestream of launch

What Does All This Mean?

Firefly Aerospace launched their Alpha rocket for the third time, this time with a classified United States government payload on the Victus Nox mission. Due to the classified nature of the payload, orbit specifics, payload mass, and payload function are largely unknown. This was the first flight of Alpha to carry a US government payload, having previous launched a plethora of CubeSats and PicoSats.

How Did It Go?

Firefly posted Friday night pacific time that the company successfully launched its Alpha rocket and delivered the classified payload to low Earth orbit from Vandenberg Space Force Station in California, USA. Firefly spoke of a successful mission, “Upon receiving the notice to launch and orbit requirements from the U.S. Space Force, Firefly completed all final launch preparations, including trajectory software updates, payload encapsulation, transport to the launch pad, mating to Alpha, and fueling, within 24 hours”. The first available launch opportunity was 27 hours after reciving the notification to launch.

In additiont to a successful launch and satellite deploy, Firefly also tested the second stage relight and targeted re-entry capability.

firefly, victus nox, space force
The Victus Nox mission patch (Credit: Firefly Aerospace)

Firefly Aerospace

Firefly Aerospace Inc. (“Firefly”) is an American end-to-end space transportation company committed to providing economical and convenient access to space for small payloads through the design, manufacture, and operation of reliable launch and spacecraft vehicles. Firefly’s launch vehicles utilize common technologies, manufacturing infrastructure, and launch capabilities, providing LEO launch solutions for up to ten metric tons of payload in the future. Combined with Firefly’s in-space vehicles, such as the Space Utility Vehicle (SUV) and Blue Ghost Lunar Lander, Firefly provides the space industry with a single source for missions from LEO to the surface of the Moon or beyond. Firefly is headquartered in Cedar Park, TX.

What Is Victus Nox?

In short, Victus Nox is a payload that aims to test new technology and push the boundaries of what is possible. The term Victus Nox is Latin for “conquer the night.” This launch, the satellite, and the whole project is being run by the United States Space Force (USSF) Space Systems Command (SSC). In October 2022, the SSC contracted Millennium Space Systems to build the satellite and Firefly Aerospace to be ready to launch it. This experiment, known as Tactically Responsive Space-3 (TacRS-3) and run by the SSC Space Safari, which has a main goal of proving the feasibility of rapid launch turnaround.

firefly, victus nox, space force
Victus Nox mission on the launch pad earlier this year (Credit: Firefly Aerospace)

The SSC Space Safari can request a satellite to be built and readied, in this case by Millennium. Millennium then pulled a satellite from their production line, modified it to meet the Space Safari’s needs, and was ready for delivery. After completion, Millennium enters the “activation” phase, where it can be ready to ship the satellite to Firefly. After receiving the order to ship the satellite, a six month countdown begins, where the Space Safari can order a launch within the next 24 hours.

In these 24 hours, teams at Millennium and Firefly have to do final checks on the satellite and launch vehicle, mate the two, and fuel up for launch. There is no other launch provider, as of publication, that is subject to these rapid call-to-launch conditions. For comparison, the Tactically Responsive Space-2 (TacRS-2) mission had an 11 month turnaround.

Alpha

Alpha is a small lift launch vehicle developed and built by Firefly Aerospace. With a payload capacity of 1,170 kg and 745 kg to a 200 km LEO at 28.5° inclination and a 500 km SSO, respectively, Alpha is one of the biggest small lift launch vehicles. It is a two stage liquid-fueled Rocket utilizing highly refined kerosene (RP-1) and liquid oxygen (LOx) as fuel and oxidizer. Alpha stands a total of 29.48 m (~96.7 ft) tall while being 1.8 m (~71 in) in diameter with a 2.21 m (~87 in) fairing. The rocket is entirely made from advanced carbon-fiber composite, which results in a lighter, but still strong vehicle, able to lift more payload than comparable rockets made from metal.

Rocket Lab, Electron, Firefly, Alpha, Rocket
Size comparison of Firefly’s Alpha (right) and Rocket Lab’s Electon (left). (Credit: Stanley Creative)

Stage 1

Alpha’s first stage is powered by four Reaver 1 engines producing a total of 736.1 kN (~165,000 lbf) at lift off. The Reaver 1 engine is a “simple” combustion tap-off cycle engine where hot exhaust gasses are driving a single-shaft turbo pump, which feeds the engine with propellants. This makes the engine relatively simple, but also complicated to start. During this complicated start up procedure, Firefly uses TEA-TEB as an ignition fluid, which causes the green flame at start-up. This will be the first time that a tap-off cycle engine will fly on an orbital class rocket. Up until now there has only been Blue Origin’s BE-3 engine as another tap-off cycle engine that has been flown on a vehicle.

Each Reaver engine produces ~184 kN of thrust at a specific impulse (ISP) of 295.6 seconds at lift off. The maximum total thrust of the rocket is 801kN (~180,000 lbf) in a vacuum. Furthermore, each engine features single axis gimballing resulting in pitch, yaw and roll control when all four engines are combined.

Alpha first stage, static fire, firefly
Alpha’s first stage during a static fire test at Briggs, Texas. (Credit: Firefly)

Stage 2

The second stage is powered by a single Lightning 1 engine producing 70.1 kN at an ISP of 322 seconds. Furthermore, the engine’s nozzle extension gets cooled by the exhaust gas of the turbopump. Just like Reaver, Lightning is also a tap-off cycle engine and uses the same TEA-TEB as its ignition fluid.

FLTA001 DREAM Failure

Shortly after successful ignition of all four Reaver engines and a nominal lift off of Alpha, the rocket experienced a premature engine shut down of its engine two on the first stage at approximately T+14s. This was caused by a main fuel valve that closed off the fuel supply to the engine. The valve closed due to a loss of electrical signal caused by a faulty connector.

Firefly, Alpha, FLTA001, DREAM, engine 2 shut down
Firefly’s Alpha rocket during ascent after its engine 2 shut down prematurely. (Credit: Firefly)

The under-powered vehicle continued to ascend accelerating gradually. At approximately T+2:16 the vehicle reached supersonic speeds. Due to the lack of control authority caused by the early engine two shut down, and the aerodynamics drastically changing in the trans-sonic environment, the vehicle tumbled out of control. The range transmitted a termination signal at T+2:27 after the rocket completed a total of one and a half somersaults.

Firefly, Alpha, FLTA001, DREAM, tumbling out of control, payloads and fairing breaking away
Firefly’s Alpha rocket tumbling out of control with its fairing and payloads breaking away. (Credit: Firefly)

The engine section of the rocket plunged back to the ground and survived the impact in relatively good condition, allowing the teams to gather the remains and analyze the experienced anomaly. Firefly’s Alpha rocket gathered around two and a half minutes of valuable flight data that helped the teams to further improve the vehicle’s design with the aim of reaching orbit with FLTA002 To The Black. Alpha reached an altitude of approximately 15 km when the flight was terminated.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: