Firefly partners with Aerojet Rocketdyne, mulls AR1 engine for Beta launch vehicle

WASHINGTON — Firefly Aerospace on Oct. 18 said it is collaborating with Aerojet Rocketdyne to increase the performance of its upcoming Alpha launch vehicle, and is considering Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 engine for a future launch vehicle. 

Cedar Park, Texas-based Firefly said its debut Alpha rocket, set to launch in the first quarter of 2020, will feature 3D-printed components from Aerojet Rocketdyne on its first-stage Reaver engines.

The company’s second vehicle, Beta, may use the AR1 engine Aerojet Rocketdyne previously promoted as an option for United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, the two companies said.

In a news release, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Firefly said they will collaborate on multiple fronts, including the Orbital Transfer Vehicle Firefly is building to ferry LEO satellites up to the geosynchronous arc. The companies said they will team up on addressing commercial and government markets, including national security space.

“We will take advantage of Firefly’s mature launch vehicle designs, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s advanced propulsion systems and the world-class technological capabilities of both companies,” said Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO Eileen Drake.

In an interview, Mark Watt, acting chief financial officer at Firefly, said Firefly is planning three different launch vehicles — Alpha, Beta and Gamma — scaling to heavier lift and introducing reusability.

Alpha is an expendable rocket designed to send 630 kilograms into a 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit, and 1,000-kilograms to lower altitude low Earth orbits. Using “evolved engines” built with Aerojet Rocketdyne, Alpha will reach 800 kilograms to SSO and 1,200 to 1,300 kilograms for lower LEO altitudes, Watt said.

Watt said Firefly will evolve Alpha over the course of 2020 and possibly into early 2021, while also preparing to introduce Beta in 2021.

Watt said Beta has been redesigned from a triple-core rocket, akin to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, to a single core in order to increase how much it can lift. That rocket, featuring a reusable first stage, will be able to lift 8,000 kilograms to LEO, he said.

In a statement, Firefly CEO Tom Markusic praised the AR1 as an engine well suited for Beta, but stopped short of saying the engine’s selection is a done deal.

“Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 engine, which incorporates the latest advances in propulsion technology, materials science and manufacturing techniques, is incredibly well suited to power Beta given its cost-effective, high performance capabilities,” Markusic said.

Firefly hasn’t decided for certain that Beta will use the AR1. Aerojet Rocketdyne has been seeking a small- to medium-class launcher for the AR1 after ULA chose Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine to power its Vulcan rocket.

Watt said Firefly’s long-term goal is to produce Firefly Gamma, a winged, reusable spaceplane that would launch a rocket into space. He said Gamma won’t be ready until around 2024 or 2025.

Firefly is advertising $15 million Alpha launches. Watt said Beta will be priced below India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, but declined to give a specific figure. Firefly doesn’t have a price yet for Gamma, he said.

Watt said Firefly is targeting four Alpha launches next year. The first mission will carry a mix of U.S. government and commercial satellites, and potentially a demonstrator of Firefly’s Orbital Transfer Vehicle, he said.

Firefly has a launchpad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but preparations are underway to establish an East Coast launch site too, he said.

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