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Firefly Space Systems

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Industry  Aerospace
Website  www.fireflyspace.com
Founded  2013
Number of employees  >140 (May 2016)
Headquarters  Cedar Park
Firefly Space Systems httpsuploadwikimediaorgwikipediaenccdFir
Key people  Tom Markusic (CEO) P.J. King (COO) Michael Blum (CFO) Shey Sabripour (CTO)
Founders  Tom Markusic, Michael Blum

Soul of the machine tom markusic firefly space systems

Firefly Space Systems is a private aerospace firm based in Austin, Texas, that is developing small and medium-sized launch vehicles for launches to orbit. They are proponents of NewSpace: a movement in the aerospace industry whose objective is to increase access to space through innovative technical advances resulting in a reduction of launch cost, and the lessening of regulations and logistical restrictions associated with dependence on national space institutions.


Firefly furloughed their staff in October 2016 and is currently seeking additional capital to continue development of their launch system.

Firefly space systems rising on snapexit


Firefly was formed in January 2014 by Dr. Tom Markusic, P.J. King and Michael Blum and a small group of entrepreneurs who self-funded the company. In September 2014, Firefly announced it would move its headquarters from Hawthorne, California to Austin-suburb Cedar Park, Texas. By November it relocated to Texas. It grew to 30 employees by August 2014 and 43 employees by November 2014. Firefly has office and engineering facilities in Austin, Texas and Hawthorne, California and purchased 215 acres (87 ha) of land for an engine test and manufacturing facility in Briggs, Texas, 50 miles (80 km) north of Austin.

Tom Markusic has a background in propulsion engineering, and has worked at other NewSpace companies including SpaceX — where he was manager of the SpaceX Texas Rocket Test Facility — and also held senior posts at Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. The company name came to Markusic while sitting on his back porch watching fireflies and realizing that in the future the sky above Earth might look like that as spacecraft ferried people to Mars.

In 2014, Firefly purchased fiber-winding equipment for manufacturing composite cryotanks that will be built using an out-of-autoclave process. Prototype tanks were tested at Marshall Space Flight Center in mid-2014.

The Firefly Alpha design was revealed in July 2014. As of November 2014 Firefly's objective was to be cash-flow positive by 2018, based on anticipated small-satellite business.

In June 2015, Firefly projected initial engine tests on their Texas test stand by September 2015 and the first full-pressure test of the full-size first-stage test article before year-end 2015. As of June 2015, a suborbital launch of Firefly Alpha was projected to occur no earlier than 2017.

In the event, the first hot fire engine test of the "Firefly Rocket Engine Research 1" (FRE-R1) occurred on 10 September 2015.

Firefly has signed an agreement with Space Florida to launch from the Florida "Space Coast". The initial demonstration launch of the Firefly Alpha could be as early as 2016.

Firefly furloughed their entire staff in October 2016 after losing the backing of a major investor.

Aerospike engine

Firefly proposes to utilize a lightweight annular aerospike rocket engine and self-pressurizing propellant in order to improve the payload fraction delivered to orbit.

The engine is a 'plug cluster aerospike', a type of annular aerospike engine with an array of ten small conventional methane-fueled rockets arranged in a ring, thrusting against a plug-shaped structure. The thrusters’ force against the carefully shaped plug provides an optimal propulsive effect on the launch vehicle, while the open exhaust lets the aerospike engine’s exhaust 'self-tune' against the different ambient pressures that the rocket will experience at increasingly higher altitudes during a terrestrial launch.

Conventionally, rockets use pressurized reserves of an inert gas to 'backfill' propellant tanks, in order to maintain tank pressure as the tank voids. However, the proposed aerospike throttled thrust architecture uses autogenous pressure-fed methane/liquid oxygen propellant. Pressure is maintained by the propellant alone, thus removing the weight requirement, complexity and additional failure modes of inert gas reserves.

Firefly cools the truncated spike structure — which impinges the rocket exhaust of the ten surrounding conventional rocket engines — by pumping the liquid methane fuel through the spike, turning the heated fuel into a hot gas, some of which is then used to generate the gas necessary to pressurize the fuel tank. This avoids the traditional means of using helium inert gas for tank pressurization and leaves slightly more burnable fuel in the fuel tank. The plug cluster spike itself is static.

Additionally, methane/liquid oxygen is clean burning with no significant coking, thereby reducing the need for engine refurbishment between firings. This allows each stage to be reused, if recovered in a serviceable condition, resulting in further cost savings on subsequent flights. Methane produces slightly higher Isp and is also relatively inexpensive compared to more conventional RP-1 (kerosene) .

Launch vehicles

Firefly is working on a number of design concepts within their overall vehicle architecture. As of June 2015, FireFly continues to do a large number of design trades. The approximate characteristics of the conceptual launch vehicles are:

Firefly Alpha

The FireFly Alpha (Firefly α) is an expendable launch vehicle designed to carry light — approximately 400 kilograms (880 lb) — satellites to orbit. Projected launch cost is $9 million for orbital payloads.

It utilizes the FRE-1/FRE-2 aerospike engines and a lightweight carbon composite structure to reduce launch weight, resulting in improved payload fraction.

Technical description and specifications

  • Payload / 400 kilograms (880 lb) (LEO, un-margined)
  • Propulsion
    Stage 1
  • Engine / FRE-2
  • Propellant / LOX / methane
  • Type / Pressure-fed (autogenous), with pintle injector
  • Configuration / Plug cluster aerospike, with "10 combustion chambers surround[ing] a truncated spike"
  • Thrust (SL) / 400 kilonewtons (90,000 lbf)
  • Specific impulse (Isp) (vac) / 305 sec
  • Stage 2
  • Engine / FRE-1
  • Propellant / LOX / methane
  • Type / Pressure-fed (autogenous), with pintle injector
  • Configuration / Conventional bell
  • Thrust (vac) / 44 kilonewtons (10,000 lbf)
  • Isp (vac) / 335 sec
  • Thrust chambers on FRE-1 and FRE-2 are identical.
  • Structures
  • Stage 1 Diameter: 6 feet (1.8 m)
  • Stage 2 Diameter: 5 feet (1.5 m)
  • Materials: Carbon composite
  • Firefly Beta

    Firefly β (Beta) is planned to be a multicore design, grouping α (Alpha) rockets together as a group. As with Alpha, it is expected to be an expendable launch vehicle.

    Technical description and specifications

  • Payload / 1,100 kilograms (2,400 lb)
  • Production

    Firefly is building and testing its engines at a single location in Texas, approximately 20-minutes from company headquarters, in Cedar Park, Texas. Company design and procurement strategy intends to avoid the "large outsourced supplier structure" common in traditional aerospace companies, although a subcontractor will build the carbon-fiber rocket bodies and tanks.


    Firefly Space Systems Wikipedia

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