Firefly Aerospace demos its Lightning 1 engine
CEDAR PARK, Texas — In a demo for a crowd of people from the Austin, Texas South by Southwest festival, Firefly Aerospace fired its “Lightning 1” engine for about one minute. It is hoped the engine design will propel the second stage of the company’s “Firefly Alpha” rocket into space as early as 2019.
The March 13, 2018, test of the thrust chamber assembly took place at the company’s Cedar Park, Texas, engineering site on Test Stand 1, which is designed to facilitate up to 450,000 pounds (2,000 kilonewtons) of thrust. The Lightning 1 engine is designed to have a maximum vacuum thrust of 15,714 pounds (69.9 kilonewtons).
Currently under development, the engine is being developed to power the upper stage of the company’s 95-foot-tall (29-meter-tall), two-stage Firefly Alpha rocket. The full vehicle is designed to be capable of sending some 2,200 pounds (1000 kilograms) into low-Earth orbit (LEO) for about $10 million. Additionally, it is described as being able to send 1,300 pounds (600 kilograms) into a 310-mile (500-kilometer) Sun-synchronous orbit.
“If you look at what people are trying to put in space, it’s no longer these Battlestar Galactica huge satellites that cost a billion dollars,” said Firefly founder and CEO Tom Markusic to the crowd watching the test. “What’s happening is people are building much smaller satellites in startup companies with capabilities of these larger satellites. It’s kinda like Moore’s Law being applied to satellites.”
Firefly Alpha’s first stage will consist of four Reaver 1 engines to produce a total of 163,841 pounds (728.8 kilonewtons) of thrust, according to the company website. Both the Reaver 1 and Lightning 1 engines consume liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene also known as RP-1. The rocket’s diameter measures some six feet (1.8 meters). The rocket’s payload fairing is a bit wider at 6.6 feet (2 meters). The entire 95-foot (29-meter) airframe is built using carbon-fiber composites.
Markusic said the project has cost the company about $100 million.
“We’re trying to be very frugal,” Markusic said. “What you are going to see today is a NewSpace perspective: Lots of open space, lots of young enthusiastic engineers, not building a lot of infrastructure we don’t need ahead of time.”
Firefly Aerospace said it is about 18 months away from launching Firefly Alpha. The company has about 120 employees working on the engines and structural elements of the vehicle now and Markusic anticipates the company settling in at around 150 employees, which is about where SpaceX was in 2005-2006 when launching its Falcon 1.
Ryan Chylinski contributed to this story.
This story was corrected to provide the correct thrust for the first stage of Firefly Alpha and the test fire video of Lightning 1.
Video courtesy of SpaceFlight Insider
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.