Firefly Aerospace debuted a line of orbital vehicles called Elytra on Tuesday, as it looks to become an end-to-end mission services provider for commercial and government customers. The first Elytra will fly on a Firefly Alpha rocket in 2024, part of a rapid-response mission contract with Texas-based startup Xtenti for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
The Elytra vehicles had previously been called “space utility vehicles.” Originally, Firefly said it would develop two SUVs, a smaller SUV Light and a considerably larger and more capable SUV Lux. Now, the company says it will offer three vehicles – Elytra Dawn, Elytra Dusk, and Elytra Dark – that will be compatible with Firefly’s Alpha small-launch vehicle and a medium-lift launch vehicle that’s still under development.
“Elytra further expands Firefly’s on-orbit services by opening access to more orbits, extending the life of each mission, and providing deorbiting services to help minimize space debris,” Firefly CEO Bill Weber said in a statement. “Our robust vehicle line gives us a unique advantage to quickly launch, deploy, and service satellites on-orbit in response to dynamic changes in space.”
Elytra Dawn is optimized for low Earth orbit (LEO) missions; Elytra Dusk can operate from LEO to geosynchronous (GEO) orbit; while Elytra Dark is the most rugged of the line-up, designed “to serve as persistent orbital infrastructure” and to support transfers to deep space.
The first Elytra Dusk will launch next year as part of an agreement with space logistics company Xtenti, who will use its small satellite dispenser with the orbital vehicle. That mission, which will launch next year, is part of a contract with the NRO to demonstrate the dispenser’s rapid response capabilities on-orbit.
After launching on Alpha, Elytra will use the “Flight Agnostic Non-interfering, Tunable Mass Rideshare Dispenser Equipment” (Fantm-Ride) dispenser to deploy commercial payloads in sun synchronous orbit; then, the vehicle will perform an on-orbit maneuver and wait, essentially, until the NRO tells it to deploy its government payloads.
Defense agencies have issued a handful of contracts for “rapid response” space capabilities, like the ability to launch a rocket in short notice or deploy satellites in-orbit at the drop of a hat. While this mission with Xtenti is designed to show the latter, Firefly is also looking to demonstrate the former: last year, the company won a contract with the U.S. Space Force to use Alpha to launch a satellite into orbit with just 24-hours notice.