Space launch startup Firefly Aerospace encountered a setback as it kicked off the first “hot” tests of its Alpha launch vehicle’s engines — a fire resulted from its first test-engine fire. The fire occurred at 6:23 PM local time on Wednesday during the first planned five-second fire in a series of test firings Firefly intended to run for Alpha at its Briggs, Texas facility. The fire was located “in the engine bay at the base of the rocket’s stage,” Firefly has said in a new statement about the incident.
Firefly’s engineers immediately stopped the engine test, and the facility’s fire suppression system put out the fire, the company says. The team is currently reviewing data around the test to identify the cause, and will perform a complete investigation to figure out what’s going on and then report those results, according to the statement. Firefly also says that “at no time during the test were Firefly operations personnel or the public in danger” and adds that it’s working with local emergency response and governing authorities throughout the investigation.
The launch startup has encountered setbacks before, though its biggest previous hurdle was of a different nature: Firefly Space Systems filed for bankruptcy protection in 2017, before returning with a slightly different corporate identity as Firefly Aerospace later that year, still under the leadership of founder and current CEO Tom Markusic. Firefly was rescued at least in part thanks to a lifeline investment from Noosphere Ventures, and said at the time it had enough runway to fund it fully through development and flight of Alpha, an expendable launch vehicle that will be able to deliver as much as a metric ton to low-Earth orbit.
This fire is a setback, but it does appear that it was at least quickly contained and didn’t result in any kind of explosion or total destruction of the test launch vehicle. It’s too soon to say what this will mean for Firefly’s timelines, which at the end of last year, anticipated a first launch of Alpha sometime between this February and March.
Anomalies are part of the process of developing new launch systems and spacecraft, so this isn’t necessarily a major blow for Firefly — depending, of course, on what the investigation reveals regarding the ultimate cause.
Firefly’s statement on the incident is included in full below.
Firefly Aerospace maintains a 200-acre manufacturing and test facility in Briggs, Texas, 27 miles north of its headquarters.
On January 22, 2020, test engineers were conducting a planned test of the first stage of the company’s “Alpha” launch vehicle. The test was to be the first in a series of propulsion tests to verify design and operation of the stage, and involved a short, 5-second firing of the stage’s four engines.
At 6:23 pm local time, the stage’s engines were fired, and a fire broke out in the engine bay at the base of the rocket’s stage. The 5-second test was immediately aborted and the test facility’s fire suppression system extinguished the fire. The cause of the anomaly is under investigation. Firefly engineers are reviewing test data from the stage to identify potential causes for the test failure, and Firefly will share results of that investigation once it is complete.
Firefly is committed to workplace safety, and at no time during the test were Firefly operations personnel or the public in danger. Firefly is coordinating closely with local authorities and emergency response personnel as it investigates the anomaly and refines its contingency procedures.