The inaugural launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral was a wake-up call. To accommodate its launch in February 2018, the FAA cleared a large swath of airspace from the Cape out into the Atlantic Ocean. The hours-long event caused 563 flight delays and required aircraft circumventing that airspace to traverse nearly 35,000 additional nautical miles. Yet the opportunity presented by these space ventures, whether commercial or scientific, is significant to the nation compared to these temporary effects.
A new era in commercial use of airspace has arrived, and with it commercial space launch and reentry operations from U.S. spaceports and federal ranges have introduced new complexities in deconfliction of air and space vehicles within existing management systems and procedures. The commercial space and air transportation communities are expected to grow markedly in the coming years. While the FAA licensed 35 space launch and reentry operations in 2018, outyear expectations are projected to be in the 50s. This rate of growth coincides with the predicted 50% increase in U.S. airline passengers over the next two decades and an even greater rise in the numbers of unmanned aircraft systems and other emerging aircraft-based services. Other countries face similar challenges and opportunities as the commercial space operational tempo increases in both numbers and locations.
Space launch and reentry operations are defined by key features: the size of the rocket, returning boosters, the types and numbers of satellites launched, flight characteristics, purpose of transit, whether it is crewed or autonomous, duration of mission and planned reentry. Commercial operations are also introducing new rocket configurations, such as the SpaceX mission with three rocket bodies returning to land at the Cape and on a drone ship.
But one thing that ties such disparate characteristics together is that each commercial space vehicle must transit from the Earth’s surface through 60,000 ft. (18,288 m) (an altitude below which most aviation systems fly), through the altitudes where a variety of experimental aircraft and balloons operate and into low Earth orbit. During this passage, spent boosters will ultimately reenter and, after their operational lifetimes, satellites will reenter. It is the risk of all these moving parts that demands so much airspace to be dedicated to each operation.
Shared information is the key to managing the risk and simultaneously improving the efficient use of airspace.
Increased launches, variations in flight paths, performance characteristics and a multiplicity of geographical points of ascent are a challenge even for a low volume of traffic. To ensure safe coexistence, the increase in volume and variety of flight characteristics requires accurate and timely aircraft, high altitude and sharing and integrating space system information into a single operational picture. New approaches for information integration, from surface to space, are emerging. For example, the FAA is seeking to migrate away from the manual processes in place today through the development of the Space Data Integrator (SDI). SDI concepts aim to limit the affected geographical area and duration of National Airspace System closures for launch and reentry events in order to integrate airspace across all users, including space launch and reentry, supersonic and hypersonic transit, aerostats, and civil and military aviation.
Tools such as SDI are a start, but to address increasing numbers, multi-agency coordination will require more automated capabilities to increase the comprehensive understanding and forecasting of implications from intent and state data.
Regardless of the proposed solution, the collective goal must be the safe and efficient operation of platforms across all users, with particular attention to crewed and passenger vehicles. Any interaction in flight must be managed within the acceptable risk margins agreeable to all industry participants and the traveling public.
There are long poles in the tent, namely the sheer physics that require mitigation procedures far beyond those in place today. As underscored in a recent paper presented at the 2019 International Astronautical Congress, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and MITRE Corp. share the objective of defining the structure of a mature regulatory environment that ensures safety at the increasing scales of users. But that future begins with finding a balanced way to manage the critical needs of the aviation community alongside commercial space launches. One cannot benefit at the expense of the other.
Authors: Christian Zur is the executive director of the procurement and space industry council at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Andy Anderegg is a senior principal engineer at the MITRE Corp. and Scott Kordella is MITRE’s director of space systems.