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FAA begins use of system to reduce impact of launches on airspace

Falcon 9 Transporter-2 launch

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration has started to use a new tool intended to better integrate commercial launches and reentries into the National Airspace System, reducing the disruptions those events have on aviation.

The FAA announced July 8 that it formally started use of the Space Data Integrator (SDI) with the June 30 launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral on the Transporter-2 rideshare mission. It will be used again when the CRS-22 cargo Dragon spacecraft splashes down off the Florida cost late July 9.

SDI, under development by the FAA for several years, automates the transfer of data about launches and reentries to air traffic controllers so they have up-to-date information on the progress of those activities, including any anomalies that might create debris or other aviation hazards. That can allow controllers to more efficiently manage air traffic around those closures.

“The overall impact and the benefit is reducing the amount of time it takes to close or reopen airspace,” Tim Arel, deputy chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, said of the SDI in a call with reporters.

The intent is to allow quicker reopening of airspace once a launch or reentry has safely transited airspace. “We’re able to more dynamically adjust those closures,” he said. “What it means is that those flights moved out of the way to accommodate a safe operation of that space mission will be able to more quickly get back on to their normal flight path, or maybe even get some shortcuts.”

Arel said that other measures it had been taking for airspace closures already reduced the average length from more than four hours to more than two hours. “We know SDI will help us open the airspace even quicker,” he said, but didn’t offer an estimate of how much of an improvement it will provide.

The growing cadence of commercial launches in recent years — there have been 33 licensed launches so far in 2021, compared to 11 in all of 2016 — prompted pushback from the aviation industry given the conventional approach to closing large amounts of airspace for each launch. A breaking point was the first Falcon Heavy launch in February 2018 that closed airspace off the Florida coast for hours on a weekday afternoon, affecting hundreds of flights in a busy corridor.

The aviation and commercial spaceflight industries have been working together more closely together since then, including pushing for tools like SDI that have the potential to reduce the size and duration of airspace closures. However, the long development cycle for SDI prompted congressional criticism at a June 16 hearing of the House Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee.

At the hearing, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the full committee, pressed the FAA on the slow progress on SDI, stating he was opposed to delaying airline flights “because some millionaire or billionaire is going to experience 15 minutes of weightlessness.”

At the hearing, Wayne Monteith, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, said operational tests of SDI would begin soon, although there wasn’t a timeline for full integration of SDI. Work on it has accelerated, he said, since the project was handed over to Teri Bristol, chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO).

“We have seen tremendous, tremendous progress in just the last two years as Teri Bristol and the ATO has taken this responsibility on with our technical help,” he said in the call with reporters.

Currently, participation in the SDI is voluntary. Besides SpaceX, which started cooperating with the FAA on the SDI in 2016, others include Blue Origin, Firefly Aerospace and Alaska Aerospace Corporation, which operates the launch site on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Monteith didn’t give a schedule for bringing other companies into the system, but emphasized the importance of having an automated system like SDI to improve safety.

There are limits, though, to what tools like SDI can do to improve management of launches in the National Airspace System. On June 29, the first Transporter-2 launch attempt was scrubbed shortly after a helicopter entered restricted airspace near the pad, halting the countdown seconds before liftoff. “Unfortunately, launch is called off for today, as an aircraft entered the ‘keep out zone’, which is unreasonably gigantic,” Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, tweeted shortly after the scrub. “There is simply no way that humanity can become a spacefaring civilization without major regulatory reform. The current regulatory system is broken.”

Arel said that SDI did not play a factor in the Transporter-2 scrub, since the airspace violation took place before launch. “It was ready to be used for the first attempt and was not needed,” he said.


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Firefly selects SpaceX to launch its lunar lander

Blue Ghost lander

WASHINGTON — Firefly Aerospace announced May 20 it selected SpaceX to launch its first lunar lander mission for NASA, the latest in a series of contract wins by SpaceX for lunar missions.

Firefly said that a SpaceX Falcon 9 will launch its Blue Ghost lunar lander in 2023 on a mission to land in Mare Crisium on the near side of the moon. The lander will be carrying 10 payloads for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program under a contract it won in February, along with additional commercial payloads.

Firefly is developing its own launch vehicle, Alpha, with a first launch expected in the coming weeks. However, that rocket is not powerful enough to take Blue Ghost to the moon, requiring Firefly to purchase a launch from another launch provider.

“The high performance of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle permits a lunar transit using minimal Blue Ghost propulsion resources, thereby allowing the lander to deliver more than 150 kilograms of payload to the lunar surface,” Shea Ferring, senior vice president of spacecraft at Firefly, said in a statement.

The company has started work on the lander, including ordering long-lead items and testing the vision navigation system for the lander on a one-acre simulated lunar landscape at its Briggs, Texas, test site.

The lander is part of an effort by the company to develop spacecraft and orbital tugs for an overall space transportation system. “The lunar lander is really the first contract that validated our end-to-end space transportation paradigm that we’re trying to put forward at Firefly,” Tom Markusic, chief executive of Firefly, said in a recent interview. “Blue Ghost, the lunar lander, has really energized the spacecraft side of the business.”

With this contract, SpaceX is now launching five of the six CLPS missions awarded by NASA to date. Intuitive Machines is using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 to launch its two lunar lander missions, the first of which is now scheduled for early 2022. Masten Space Systems selected SpaceX for its Masten Mission One lander scheduled for late 2022. Astrobotic announced April 13 that its Griffin lander, carrying the NASA VIPER rover, will launch on a Falcon Heavy.

The exception is Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander. It will launch on the inaugural flight of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, currently scheduled for no earlier than late this year.

In addition to its CLPS awards, SpaceX also has NASA contracts to launch the first two elements of the lunar Gateway on a single Falcon Heavy in 2024, and to provide cargo delivery to the Gateway under a 2020 contract. SpaceX won a Human Landing System contract April 16, valued at $2.9 billion, to develop a lunar lander version of its Starship vehicle and perform one crewed mission to the lunar surface. Work on the HLS contract remains suspended while the Government Accountability Office reviews protests filed by two losing bidders, Blue Origin and Dynetics.