— U.S. Air Force Space Command is hoping to implement new technologies and methods into its satellite launching operations over the next decade that a command official says would result in significant long-term savings in infrastructure and personnel costs.
The changes entail switching to GPS satellite-based tracking of rockets after they lift off and the incorporation of more automated destruct capabilities for vehicles that veer off course, according to Bruce Wilson, deputy director for air, space and nuclear operations at Air Force Space Command in Serving as the basis of the plan is a launch range study that was started 18 months ago and is expected to be finished shortly, he said.
The study is intended to lay the groundwork for the budgeting and contracts that will be needed to move forward with the planned upgrades, said. However, he conceded that the Air Force does not have funding set aside in its future-year planning budgets for the changes.
Space Command will take great care not to disrupt its recent strong track record of launch success as it implements GPS-based tracking in 2011, followed by an automated destruct capability around 2018, said in a July 16 interview.
Sustaining and improving the Air Force’s launch infrastructure is challenging, particularly at a time when budgets are tight and the service has a large number of modernization efforts ongoing for both aircraft and space systems, said.
Proposals to switch to GPS- based tracking at the U.S. federal launch ranges have been around for over a decade but have floundered due to the investment required and stiff institutional resistance from those who favor continued use of ground-based sensors.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Thomas Deppe, deputy commander of Space Command, noted his frustration with the pace of range modernization during a question and answer session following an April 30 luncheon speech at the 6th Responsive Space Conference in Los Angeles
Deppe, who oversaw the service’s East Coast launches as vice commander of the 45th Space Wing from July 1998 to July 1999, said he recently told Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of Space Command, that he “was disappointed because it has been nine years, almost 10 years, since I was involved with the range business, and we haven’t done one damn thing in my opinion.”
Deppe expressed concern that some may view the Air Force’s launch support work as a “jobs program,” and said he looks forward to the use of GPS-based tracking and autonomous destruct capabilities as significant improvements.
Both capabilities will be added to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle rockets built by Denver-based United Launch Alliance, said. These rockets, consisting of two families dubbed Atlas 5 and Delta 4, launch the vast majority of operational national security payloads.
Rockets launched from the two main launch ranges – Vandenberg Air Force Base, , and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, – today are tracked by ground-based radars and optical sensors distributed along designated flight corridors. GPS-based tracking would rely instead on the Air Force’s constellation of GPS navigation satellites; rockets would be equipped with GPS receivers that would relay their precise location to ground controllers. said this will reduce the manpower needed to track rockets during flight as well as to maintain and operate the ground based infrastructure.
GPS-based tracking already has been tested with ballistic missiles, giving Space Command confidence it can be done on satellite launches without adding risk, he said.
Implementing GPS metric tracking likely will take about $92 million over the next three years, said. However, money has not yet been set aside for this purpose in the Air Force’s out-year budget, and securing that funding likely will require a reordering of service priorities, he said.
added, however, that Kehler is expected to make a push for those funds.
In addition to helping reduce personnel and infrastructure requirements, GPS receivers would help satellite operators determine more precisely where their payload has been dropped off in orbit by its launch vehicle, said. This will help them calculate how much fuel will be needed to move the satellite to its operational orbital location and better estimate how long before a replacement spacecraft is needed, he said.
Developing an automated flight termination capability will take longer to implement, and likely will cost about $230 million over the next seven to nine years, said. That money also is not part of the Air Force’s budget plans at this time, said.
noted that the Air Force spends about $500 million annually on space launch support, with about $380 million of that going to operations and maintenance.
While implementing GPS tracking and automated flight termination requires a significant upfront investment, it will save money in the long run, he said.