On Wednesday night, a fire broke out at Firefly Aerospace in Austin, Texas, while the company tested out the main engines on its newly developed Alpha rocket. The fire prompted a brief evacuation of people living within a one-mile radius of the test as well as road closures, but Firefly ultimately suppressed the flames, and no one was hurt. The company says its rocket and test stand are intact.
Firefly Aerospace is the resurrected version of Firefly Space Systems, a small satellite launch company in Texas that went bankrupt in 2016 following the Brexit referendum. Thanks to a new investor, the company came back as Firefly Aerospace and is currently developing its new Alpha rocket to launch small- to medium-sized satellites to space. Standing at 95 feet tall, the rocket will supposedly have the capacity to launch between 630 to 1,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit, according to the company.
Before last night’s accident, the company said it was about to conduct the very first hot fire test of the core section of its Alpha rocket, which entails holding down the vehicle on a test stand and igniting the engines. The test was slated to last just five seconds, and was meant to be the first in a series of tests aimed at verifying that the rocket is sound. The Burnet County Sheriff’s Office said it was informed of a “possible explosion” at 7:24PM ET, though Firefly later clarified that a fire broke out at the base of the rocket where the engines were located. Video of the event posted by a local reporter at KXAN shows the test stand going up in flames.
“During testing this evening we experienced a test anomaly resulting in a small fire on our test stand,” Firefly said in a statement last night. “The fire was quickly extinguished by our fire suppression systems on the stand and the local community emergency response team quickly responded. Both the test stand and our rocket are intact. At no time was there any risk to individuals on site or the community.”
Out of an abundance of caution, the sheriff’s office closed roadways surrounding Firefly’s facilities and evacuated the area. The area was ultimately declared safe, according to an update by the sheriff’s office at 10:25PM ET. “We apologize for any inconvenience caused and we will be working with the local emergency response team to ensure that the local community is kept aware of actions in a timely manner,” Firefly said in its statement. Firefly says it is currently investigating what caused the fire.
Last year, Firefly Aerospace had hopes of launching its Alpha rocket for the first time by the end of 2019 from its launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. That didn’t happen, and now it’s unclear how this incident will affect the timeline of the rocket’s development in the future. The company said it would update everyone on what happened and answer questions at an upcoming “community day.”
Update January 23rd, 4:15PM ET: This article was updated with additional information from Firefly Aerospace.