ORS-3 launch
ORS-3 launched on a Minotaur rocket. Credit: NASA

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. — The recent successful launch of a Minotaur 1 rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia marked the first flight test of a new on-board safety system aimed at preventing errant rockets from causing damage or bodily harm on the ground.

The GPS-aided Autonomous Range Safety System (AFSS), developed by ATK Defense Group with about $10 million in federal funding, uses tracking data independent from on-board vehicle instruments to calculate whether a rocket is on course after leaving the launch pad. The system determines whether and when it is necessary to destroy a rocket that has strayed from its planned flight path.

The ATK system builds on years of work from NASA on a similar project.

ATK and government experts are still pouring over data from the Nov. 19 test, which launched 29 NASA and Defense Department payloads in a mission dubbed Operationally Responsive Space (ORS)-3. If the system works as designed — at least two additional flight tests are planned — ATK could win millions of dollars in future business providing AFSS systems for various launchers.

“The ORS-3 flight marks an important milestone towards the development and implementation of AFSS as the range safety system of the future,” Cary Ralston, vice president and general manager of ATK’s Missile Products division, said in a Nov. 19 press release.

ATK engineers believe their onboard AFSS will be able to calculate key data points and decide significantly sooner than current systems whether it is necessary to abort the mission by triggering the rocket’s onboard self destruct system. The sooner an errant rocket is destroyed, the less chance it has to cause damage on the ground in the vicinity of the launch site.

Currently a destruct signal is sent to the rocket from the ground by a range safety officer, but the AFSS could create an option to automate that process. “Eventually we could take the man out of the loop once it proves itself,” said Bon Calayag, senior program manager for advanced systems and power with ATK Defense Group of Elkton, Md.

NASA has been working on AFSS for more than a decade, including flight tests in 2010. Some Russian launch vehicles and the Israeli Arrow exoatmospheric missile interceptor can self terminate based on pre-set limits, but those systems do not meet U.S. Defense Department standards for protecting life and property, according to NASA papers on the topic.

In 2009, the Defense Department and NASA signed a memorandum of understanding to make some of NASA’s AFSS algorithm source code available to ATK.

On the Minotaur flight Nov. 19, the ATK system ran in shadow mode, providing data but not working as an active system. ATK officials said they could envision the system working in a tandem mode in which it could rely on the range safety officer to send the destruct signal or deliver that signal on its own.

ATK plans to test the system again in spring 2014 during a launch of a highly precise long-range strike weapon developed by the Defenese Department from the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska. A final test could be done at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii, in fall 2014 during the ORS-4 launch aboard a brand new, rail-launched rocket called the Super Strypi.

If these tests are successful, a qualification program lasting 18 to 24 months could begin, Calayag said.

The AFSS was developed with about $10 million in funding from multiple government agencies, most recently the Pentagon’s ORS Office. ATK officials say the investment will more than pay for itself in the form of reduced infrastructure requirements at the ranges, which also would reduce the time required between launches and perhaps even cut down on range-related delays.

For example, the Nov. 19 launch of the Minotaur 1 was delayed about 45 minutes because of a problem at a down-range tracking station in Coquina, N.C. That tracking system will not be necessary if the new AFSS system and its independent GPS tracking worked as planned, ATK officials said.

ATK officials said they anticipate an initial low-rate production cost of $500,000 for each two-unit flight set, with costs expected to decrease over time. NASA has said it typically spends more than $700,000 per launch for comparable safety systems on Atlas and Delta launch vehicles.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.