SANTA FE, N.M. — A problem with the upper stage of a Firefly Aerospace Alpha rocket placed a Lockheed Martin technology demonstration satellite into the wrong orbit on a Dec. 22 launch.

The Alpha rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 12:32 p.m. Eastern on a mission called “Fly the Lightning” by Firefly. The launch was originally scheduled for Dec. 20 but postponed two days because of weather.

The rocket’s ascent appeared to go as planned, and launch controllers reported that the upper stage had achieved a nominal transfer orbit. Firefly then said a second burn of the upper stage was planned to take place about 40 minutes later to circularize the orbit, followed by payload separation.

However, Firefly did not provide an update about the status of the launch for several hours. In the meantime, tracking data from the U.S. Space Force showed two objects in elliptical orbits of 215 by 523 kilometers from the launch. That suggested the upper stage malfunctioned during the circularization burn.

Firefly confirmed in a statement 12 hours after launch that the second stage malfunctioned. “Alpha’s scheduled stage 2 engine relight did not deliver the payload to its precise target orbit,” the company said. “We will work with our customer and government partners to investigate the stage 2 performance and determine the root cause.”

The payload on the mission was a small satellite developed and funded by Lockheed Martin. The spacecraft, using a Nebula bus from Terran Orbital, was intended to demonstrate an electronically steerable antenna that could be used on future broadband satellites. The company planned to use the satellite to show the antenna could be quickly calibrated and put into service.

Firefly said in its statement that communications had been established with the satellite “and mission operations are now underway.” However, the low perigee of the spacecraft’s orbit indicates it is likely to reenter within several weeks.

This was the fourth launch of the Alpha, three months after it successfully launched the Victus Nox responsive space demonstration for the U.S. Space Force. A launch in October 2022 also reached orbit, but the smallsat payloads it carried reentered days after launch after being placed in an elliptical orbit rather than a higher circular orbit. Firefly claimed the launch was a success despite the early satellite reentries, saying the performance of both stages met requirements.

The first Alpha launch, in September 2021, failed to reach orbit when one of its first stage engines shut down shortly after liftoff. The first stages on subsequent launches have performed as expected.

Firefly had planned to increase the Alpha flight rate, with at least four missions scheduled for 2024 and six planned for 2025, Bill Weber, chief executive of Firefly, said in an interview in November. The company is working on new production facilities capable of building up to 24 Alphas a year.

Firefly is balancing that work on Alpha with development of a first stage for a new version of Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket, the Antares 330, that will also be used on a new launch vehicle called MLV. Weber said the company hopes to have the Antares 330 ready to enter service in mid-2025 and the MLV in late 2025.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...