Monday, February 26, 2024

Private space company Firefly Aerospace intends to become a supplier to the US National Intelligence Agency, despite unsuccessful launches

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Launch rocket Firefly Aerospace Alpha on December 22 with a satellite for Lockheed Martin. Source: Firefly Aerospace / Trevor Mahlmann

Company Firefly Aerospace announced its intention to participate in the competition of the National Reconnaissance Administration (NRO) to obtain contracts for the launch of space vehicles. This program was created so that the NRO could purchase cargo space on small satellites from commercial suppliers. Firefly received permission to participate in the tenders to launch small satellites NRO on its Alpha rocket, both from the Vandenberg Cosmodrome in California, and from Canaveral Island in Florida.


NRO developed the contractual agreement SLIC (Streamlined Launch Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity Contract) in order to receive commercial services on the launch of its missions with a high level of risk. Virgin Orbit has already received the first order under the SLIC contract, despite the fact that this company has already ceased to exist.

According to the SLIC program, it is planned to issue orders totaling approximately $700 million over the next 10 years. Although the NRO still relies on traditional carriers to launch its larger and more critical national security payloads, the SLIC program is open to US rockets that have successfully reached orbit, and allows suppliers to offer launch services on a specialized or general basis.

NRO is responsible for the development and management of American exploration satellites. Like many other government and commercial organizations, it increasingly relies on small satellites for a variety of purposes, including reconnaissance, communications, and scientific research. In recent years, NRO has shown willingness to use the services of commercial providers and small rocket carriers and has become a regular client of the company Rocket Lab, which develops the rocket Electron.

The previous launch from the company Firefly occurred on December 22, when the mission was performed for Lockheed Martin. Problems with the upper stage of the Alpha rocket led to misplacement of cargo on orbit.

This was the fourth launch of the Alpha rocket in the last three months, after the successful launch of the Victus Nox demonstration satellite for the US Air Force. The rocket also reached orbit in October 2022, but the satellites returned to the atmosphere after a few days due to incorrect placement in an elliptical orbit, instead of a higher circular one. Company Firefly stated that the launch was successful, despite problems with the placement of satellites.

In a press release dated January 25, Firefly reported that its next two missions this year will be for NASA and the commercial startup Xtenti, which has received a contract from NRO. This mission will be performed on the Alpha rocket and will involve the use of the orbital apparatus Elytra, which was developed by Firefly for transporting small loads.

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