Astronomy and Space News - Astro Watch: Max Polyakov’s (Maxim Polyakov) Firefly Aerospace Making Space Affordable for Small Satellites and Small Companies


Sunday, April 22, 2018

Max Polyakov’s (Maxim Polyakov) Firefly Aerospace Making Space Affordable for Small Satellites and Small Companies

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Max Polyakov’s Firefly Aerospace is back on track, testing its new engine, Firefly Lightning, at their Brigg’s facility outside Menlo Park, Texas. CEO, Dr. Tom Markusic, and Max Polyakov plan to make space affordable for the little guy by 2020.

Ironically enough, the rocket industry is not known for doing anything quickly, but Firefly Aerospace is bucking the trend. Just a few years ago, Firefly Aerospace was just a twinkle in Max Polyakov’s eye. Now it is regularly testing its flagship engine and is on track to launch its first fully-assembled rocket in late 2019. Even though they have yet to get their first prototype off the ground, they have already started construction on their production facility to pump out two units per month by 2021.

No rest for Tom Markusic

It isn’t uncommon for companies to take a breather after a new company takes over ownership, but the last thing on Max Polyakov’s mind was giving the fledgling orbital launch company some space. After being purchased out of bankruptcy in 2017, the company immediately began hiring back key personnel, including CEO Tom Markusic.

In less than two years, Max Polyakov (Maxym Polyakov) has helped the company finalized plans for their orbital launcher, Firefly Alpha, tested their new Lightning engine and released a detailed Payload User’s Guide to help potential clients plan their first missions.

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The employees have no time for rest and follow a daily testing schedule of hot burns on their test pad at the Briggs test facility. They have both horizontal and vertical testing facilities that can handle up to 450,000lbs of thrust, although the Lightning is still currently running at a fraction of that. At its peak performance, Lightning plans to provide about one tenth the thrust of the Reaver engines that will eventually be used on the Firefly Alpha’s first stage.

Even though Max Polyakov (Maxym Polyakov) is not always present, Firefly staff, engineers and designers often watch or take part in the daily test, which is integral to the success that they have enjoyed. Firefly design, manufacturing, and testing teams enjoy close proximity with each other on the Brigg’s compound.

The 200-acre facility is home to more than just the testing facilities. Production buildings, workshops, offices and a control center have all grown out of the farmland surrounding Menlo Park, Texas and are still surrounded by grazing cattle. These rural roots are also slated to be the home of the future full-scale launch vehicle assembly factory within just a few more short years.

Max Polyakov’s Firefly plans to turn their relatively small rocket into the most cost effective orbital launch vehicle on the market for small to medium sized satellites. The two stage Firefly Alpha will deliver a modest 1000kg payload to any low-Earth orbit (LEO) within the next two years.

A new, smaller Space Race

More rockets were launched last year worldwide than any year before. In the early 1980’s satellites began a rapid miniaturization trend, but rockets have gotten larger and larger. The trend toward larger rockets is an attempt to lower launch costs by making the vehicles large enough that they can be reusable. Companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX are leading the way in this area, but Max Polyakov (Maxim Polyakov) saw that this trend left the majority of future clients forced to leave their smaller satellites on the ground.

Many engineers today are designing CubeSats and small satellites that have no way of getting into space other than begging for a position as a secondary payload on a larger launch. This can mean waiting for years sometimes until a primary payload is going to be launched into a compatible orbit, then applying for a secondary position. According to Max Polyakov (Maxim Polyakov) from Firefly, rideshare launch services, when they can be found, often involve compromise orbits and other undesirable launch parameters. Heavy lift launchers, while offering lower overall cost per kg, often place secondary payloads in orbits that require additional fuel and time to transfer to their proper mission orbits.

That is not to say that there are no small launcher on the market. China, Russia and India each have smaller rockets that carry payloads under 1000kgs, but these options cost an average of $30,000 - $40,000 per kilogram. Max Polyakov, Firefly Aerospace founder, plans to rewrite the price book on small orbital launches by providing a bespoke launch a desired LEO trajectory for a little as $10,000 per kilogram, a fraction of the competition today.

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The bigger they are ...

Once the Firefly Alpha is ready to launch, Max Polyakov’s Firefly plans to mass produce the vehicle, producing one every two weeks, with the ability to scale up from there.

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The company has already signed contracts with the US government, and research and development contracts with DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. They are also currently pursuing certification with the US Air Force, even though it is not required for orbital launches.

Firefly Aerospace does not intend to remain a government contractor though. Max Polyakov (Maxim Polyakov) confirmed that they eventually intend to market their services primarily to the private sector. When asked about the rationale for the extra expenses associated with the US Air Force certification, Max Polyakov cited the fact that the primary cost of a space mission is typically not the launch cost. Very often the overall launch service and resulting impact to mission success is the best measure of value to the customer, not the lowest possible launch cost.

This credibility is key in an industry where most of the players have been at the game for over 50 years. Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been giants in the space industry for decades. Until recently, many people thought it would be impossible for startups to come into the field and innovate their way into a profit position.

The space industry has largely been a government game with little innovation compared to other industries. Rapid prototyping, 3D printing, the availability of computer models and the miniaturization of satellites has lead to a turning point where new companies have been able to enter the field and compete.

Despite being a high tech company, Firefly is incredibly lean and efficient. Max Polyakov (Maxym Polyakov) confirmed that the startup would be able to keep its doors open with just 4 launches each year. With a capacity many times that, and several dozen launches already prebooked, it doesn’t seem likely that they will have any troubles financially once they are off the ground.

Along with easing the backlog of launches already in the pipe, Max Polyakov’s Firefly also hopes that they will be able to attract new customers. But, since this literally is rocket science, it can be daunting to know where to even start to have your satellite launched to space. To help introduce new clients to the ins and outs of planning a launch, Max Polyakov’s Firefly announced the release of its Payload User’s Guide for the Firefly Alpha.

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The guide provides customers with all the information they need on the capabilities, operation and specifications for each possible payload for the Firefly Alpha. With all the recent excitement surrounding the potential of low-cost CubeSats and small satellite constellations, Firefly Alpha hopes to be the rocket that makes actually getting these new tools into space affordable.

In a recent interview, Firefly CEO, Tom Markusic, explained that when they looked at what people wanted to put into space today, the oversized Battlestar Galatica-style satellites were going by the wayside.

Size Matters

The Space Age itself began with a small satellite, Sputnik 1, that weighed in at just 83kg (184lbs). At the time, all it could do was beep out a radio signal, confirming to the world that there actually was an object in space. Sputnik 1 was followed shortly by larger and larger satellites that were filled with heavy remote sensing equipment, communication equipment, GPS stations and various other devices for private and military uses.

In the last 60 years, over 4,250 satellites have made their way off of the surface of Earth, with 93% of them being large satellites weighing more than 1000kg (2200lbs). But, as Max Polyakov pointed out, the percentage is rapidly changing in favor of the little guys. Hundreds of small satellites are being launched every year.

Part of the appeal is that computing and communication equipment has become so much smaller, that even with shielding and guidance equipment, a lot of functionality can be packed into a relatively small package. Founder of Firefly Aerospace Max Polyakov has even sponsored a school that helps engineering students design and build their own satellites. CubeSats are still very popular among college and university students, and microsatellites weighing between 100kg and 1000kg are expected to make up nearly 50% of launched by 2021.

Show me the money

Max Polyakov says that a driving force in the growth of constellation missions is the plummeting cost of building spacecraft. In just the last 10 years costs have decreased by a factor of 5-10 for spacecraft design and development. Many space based services are attracting broad financial investments based on these new business cases such as space based imagery and internet access.

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Max Polyakov, Firefly Aerospace founder, knows. He has put considerable investment into his own remote sensing company, EOS Data Analytics. Just a few years ago, only 2 high-resolution, commercial satellites were available to the public. Now, dozens of agencies and private companies have constellations of hundreds of small satellites that offer the same service for a fraction of the cost. Max Polyakov’ Firefly plans to launch a private constellation of near-Earth imaging satellites.

Other startups, such as Millennium Space Systems, specialize in building low-cost small satellites, creating a supply of cargo for Firefly Alpha to deliver. When CubeSats were initially introduced, they were intended to be used for education, training and proof of concept missions. They were made with cheap, off-the-shelf components. But, the quality of these components have proven themselves in space to the point that CubeSats are now regularly used for production commercial missions.

NASA has also ramped up production of small satellites, building a dedicated CubeSat assembly and testing clean room in Pasadena a few years ago. When they were first introduced, CubeSats were difficult to fit in as secondary payloads. Now nearly every mission includes at least a few CubeSats of picosatellites tucked into the corners.

Max Polyakov points out that currently launch opportunities for small class missions are in high demand and are not being met by the launch services market. Launch services tailored to the class of spacecraft and mission requirements will dramatically improve the business cases and success of these new missions. Firefly’s Alpha launch vehicle and launch services will have a very positive impact on mission and business case success of constellation and other missions.

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Like any startup, funding is an issue. Firefly Aerospace’s predecessor, Firefly Space Systems, wasn’t able to keep up the funding to get it to their first launch. But Max Polyakov has assured Firefly Staff and its CEO that they will have the funding they need to get their Alpha dream off the ground. Their minimalist approach to operations means that once they are selling launches, they will be able to survive even if things start slowly for them.

They are able to keep costs low by focusing on outcomes and making use of the vast amount of experience in the rocket technology in both Ukraine and in Texas. Ukrainian scientists and engineers in Max Polyakov’s home country were key in keeping the Soviet Union in the Space Race during the Cold War. Now, specialists from these two worlds are working together to find solutions to the world’s problems. Also, being in Texas, Firefly was able to partner with the University of Texas to make use of Stampede, one of the world’s top 10 fastest supercomputers.

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Max Polyakov from Firefly Aerospace is confident that the historically slow pace that the Space Race has taken lately is about to return to a sprint, and he intends to take Firefly to the lead. They have come incredibly far in just 4 years and are back on track, both technically and financially. Markusic is equally positive about the future of the company. They have taken leadership roles and hopefully, if they continue to progress as they have, the sky will no longer be the limit.


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