FAA Takes Early Steps To Accommodate Commercial Spacecraft in U.S. Airspace

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WASHINGTON — As part of a massive, ongoing upgrade to the U.S. air traffic control system, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is planning for the day when commercial aircraft and commercial spacecraft will share the same congested airspace on a daily basis — even if that day is a long way off.

“We currently deal with commercial space launches on a case-by-case basis, but as we expand in the commercial space, we have to figure out a way to regularly and consistently integrate this traffic into the national airspace system,” FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker said at the agency’s annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference, held here Feb. 5

The FAA is rolling out a new system dubbed NextGen that eventually will replace today’s ground-radar-based air traffic monitoring system with GPS-based tracking. Under the new system, aircraft will use so-called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) receivers to determine their position via GPS, then broadcast that information to ground stations and other aircraft every second.

Commercial space vehicles traversing U.S. airspace will eventually have to do the same thing. But making that happen will require a little technology development. The GPS receivers used in many aircraft ADS-B units might not be sturdy enough to survive the rigors of launch, the harsh space environment and the forces of atmospheric re-entry.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has already started working on these technological challenges. Last year, the office worked with NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program to launch an experimental, space-capable ADS-B receiver aboard a small sounding rocket. 

The Flight Opportunities program finds suborbital rides for payloads aboard a stable of vehicles — sounding rockets, aircraft and balloons — operated by five companies on a commercial basis. 

The FAA-funded ADS-B receiver flew Nov. 12 aboard a SpaceLoft XL rocket, launched from Spaceport America in New Mexico by Up Aerospace of Highlands Ranch, Colo. The FAA paid Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University of Daytona, Fla., about $250,000 to build the payload, said an FAA official who spoke under condition of anonymity. Embry-Riddle used a high-altitude GPS receiver not subject to the U.S. civilian speed and altitude limitations, documentation from the NASA Flight Opportunities website shows.

The Embry-Riddle receiver was based on a design by MITRE Corp. of McLean, Va. The principal investigator for the experiment was Richard Stansbury, associate professor of computer science and computer engineering at Embry-Riddle.

A review of the data from the Nov. 12 flight is still pending, and other flights will be necessary to prove that the receiver is suitable for routine use on spacecraft. 

There, time is on the agency’s side, Whitaker said.

For aircraft, “we basically have a file-and-fly type of system. It’s the least amount of regulation you can have in a complex system of this nature. I don’t think we’re going to get to file-and-fly very quickly in commercial space,” Whitaker said.

During the U.S. government’s 2013 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2012, four companies staged a combined 14 commercial rocket flights. Three of these were performed by Armadillo Aerospace, a maker of small, low-altitude rockets that has since ceased operations. Armadillo launched from Spaceport America, near the controlled airspace of the Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Of the remaining three companies, Orbital Sciences Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. conducted orbital missions from coastal pads. Sea Launch, a Russian-owned company, launches from a floating platform in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. FAA regulates those launches because Sea Launch’s floating launchpad and command ship sail from the Port of Long Beach in California.

At that type of flight rate, the U.S. commercial launch industry can operate without issue under the current air traffic management practices, which include cordoning off large swaths of affected airspace, land and water whenever there is a launch, another FAA official said.

The current scheme “adds minutes and miles to each [aircraft] flight” operating in the vicinity of the launch zone, Edward Bolton, FAA’s assistant administrator for NextGen, said.

“That’s great, if there’s maybe 40 launches in a good year,” said Bolton, a retired Air Force major general who has held space-launch commands at the service’s Eastern and Western ranges. But in a future where there are several space launches a day, he said, rerouting private and commercial aircraft for the sake of commercial spacecraft is “not so funny anymore, right? Can’t happen, right?”

 

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