The is beta-testing a new air traffic tool with the help of data from ’s Dragon spacecraft, a task that signals a major shift in how the agency will manage restricted airspace around future space launches and reentries.
The effort is meant to limit the size and amount of time airspace remains off limits to commercial airlines or other National Airspace System (NAS) users during space vehicle ascent or return operations, as well as to automate the non-optimal procedures that air traffic controllers perform by hand today during a launch or recovery. SpaceX and the FAA are partners in the project.
Limiting the effects of space operations on U.S. airspace is seen as critical, as the FAA expects a drastic increase even several years from now in the pace of orbital and suborbital launches in the near future—an increase in the U.S. alone to one launch daily, from approximately once per month. Fueling the action is a budding commercial space sector that plans to begin offering a plethora of services, from manned suborbital joyrides and high-altitude balloon ventures to air-dropped or vertical launch of new breeds of small satellites and miniature “cubesats.”
“There’s an increasingly complex integration into the airspace, ” says Michael Romanowski, director of space integration for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. “From oceanic splashdowns to overland reentries in the continental U.S., it’s a challenge.” The FAA, by statute, is in charge of regulating launches and reentries as well as protecting civil airspace from potential collisions between vehicles.
Romanowski says the FAA issued permits for 19 commercial space launches in 2014, up from 18 in 2013, and three in 2012—but indicators show the tempo of the launch and reentry operations accelerating. “By regulation, companies have to take part in pre-application discussions with the FAA in advance of submitting an application for a permit, ” Romanowski says. “We have ongoing pre-application discussions for 39 projects. There’s a real business case that has evolved.”
The FAA today identifies the airspace that could be affected by a launch or reentry and how long it could be affected—expanding the bounds of the area to consider possible contingencies— and shuts down the area to keep out air traffic for the duration of the planned event. During the activity, a Joint Space Operations Group working at the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center in Warrenton, Virginia, manually keys in position updates and evolving hazard areas from the launch or reentry vehicle into the traffic-management system for a situational display that FAA air traffic managers use for tactical and strategic decisions in case contingencies occur.
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