ULA Completes Vulcan FRF Test

ULA Completes Vulcan FRF Test

The United Launch Alliance successfully test fired the BE-4 engines for its new Vulcan rocket on the launch pad yesterday. The company is still investigating what happened in an earlier test of the rocket’s Centaur V upper stage and is not ready to set a date for Vulcan’s inaugural launch, but the completion of the Flight Readiness Firing is a step in that direction. Meanwhile, the U.S. Space Force assigned six launches to ULA today along with six for SpaceX.

Vulcan will replace ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, which are being phased out over the next few years. Two “certification flights,” Cert-1 and Cert-2, are needed before the U.S. Space Force will put its most expensive and critical satellites atop Vulcan, but flight assignments are being made already.

Today USSF’s Space Systems Command assigned six flights to Vulcan: two for the National Reconnaissance Office (NROL-64 and NROL-83), two for the Space Development Agency (SDA T1TR-B and SDA T1tR-D), plus a GPS launch (GPS III-08) and a classified launch designated USSF-114.

The assignments were made as part of the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Launch Services Procurement. ULA and SpaceX are the two companies selected for NSSL Phase 2 launch services contracts. SpaceX also was assigned six launches: five for SDA and one for USSF. The SpaceX launches are all Falcons.

ULA was planning its first Vulcan launch, Cert-1, on May 4. It’s been delayed while ULA investigates a March 29 incident at Marshall Space Flight Center when a Centaur 5 structural test article experienced a hydrogen leak that caused a fire and explosion. Centaur 5 is Vulcan’s upper stage. That was not the upper stage for the Cert-1 mission, but ULA wants to understand what happened before clearing Cert-1 for launch.

In the meantime ULA is proceeding with a series of pre-launch tests. Last night’s was the Flight Readiness Firing (FRF) of the two BE-4 engines.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan rocket successfully conducts a Flight Readiness Firing (FRF) in preparation for the inaugural flight at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, FL. June 7, 2023.  Photo by United Launch Alliance

Jeff Bezos’s company Blue Origin developed and builds the methane-liquid oxygen (methalox) BE-4 engines and will use them for its own New Glenn rocket.

The test lasted six seconds according to ULA, with the engines throttling up to the target level for two seconds.

In a statement, ULA said they are “more than 98% complete with the Vulcan qualification program.”  What remains is Centaur V final testing including completion of the review of what happened on March 29. Once all of that is done, ULA will “develop a plan for launch.”

Astrobotic’s Peregine lunar lander is one of the payloads that will be aboard Cert-1. It can only be launched at certain times of the month when the Earth and Moon are correctly aligned. It is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program and carries several NASA science and technology experiments along with payloads for other customers.

Also aboard will be two test satellites for Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband satellite constellation and cremated remains in 150 capsules that will be sent into deep space for Celestis.

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