Future Tech

Firefly software snafu sends Lockheed satellite on short-lived space safari

Tan KW
Publish date: Thu, 22 Feb 2024, 07:43 AM
Tan KW
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Future Tech

A software error on the part of Firefly Aerospace doomed Lockheed Martin's Electronic Steerable Antenna (ESA) demonstrator to a shorter-than-expected orbital life following a botched Alpha launch.

According to Firefly's mission update, the error was in the Guidance, Navigation, and Control (GNC) software algorithm, preventing the system from sending the necessary pulse commands to the Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters before the relight of the second stage.

The result was that Lockheed's payload was left in the wrong orbit, and Firefly's engineers were left scratching their heads.

The launch on December 22, 2023 - dubbed "Fly the Lightning" - seemed to go well at first. It was the fourth for the Alpha, and after Firefly finally registered a successful launch a few months earlier in September, initial indications looked good. However, a burn of the second stage to circularize the orbit did not go to plan, and Lockheed's satellite was left in the wrong orbit, with little more than weeks remaining until it re-entered the atmosphere.

As it turned out, the Lockheed team completed their primary mission objectives. The payload was, after all, designed to demonstrate faster on-orbit sensor calibration. Just perhaps not quite that fast.

Software issues aboard spacecraft are becoming depressingly commonplace. A recent example was the near disastrous first launch of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner, where iffy code could have led, in NASA parlance, to "spacecraft loss." In a recent interview with The Register, former Voyager scientist Garry Hunt questioned if the commercial spaceflight sector of today would take the same approach to quality as the boffins of the past.

Firefly did not elaborate exactly when Alpha would launch again. It is currently working on fixing the GNC software issue and updating its processes and procedures to ensure there is no repeat of the problem. It said: "Alpha will fly again in the coming months."

The company has a busy few years ahead of it, assuming there are no further incidents with its rockets. As well as working through its manifest of Alpha launches, Firefly is also designing Miranda engines destined for use in Northrop Grumman's Antares 330 and the company's own Medium Launch Vehicle. The first hot-fire test of the engine took place in November 2023. ®



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