Let’s Give ’em Some “Space”
How to Safely Steer Clear of Aircraft Hazard Areas During Spacecraft Launch and Reentry
By Tom Hoffmann, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine
In case you hadn’t noticed, the commercial space race is on. Today’s headlines regularly tout the commercial space industry’s blistering pace of advancement and innovation — everything from reusable rockets to space tourism to nanosatellites the size of a shoebox. Launch frequency has recently picked up too. In just the last 12 years, we’ve seen the cadence (see figure 1) of U.S. commercial space launch and reentry operations grow from about three licensed operations a year to approximately two per week!
As this industry has grown, the FAA has developed a safe operating infrastructure that ensures the safety of the public, and all National Airspace System (NAS) users, including general aviation. However, the complexities of space operations require some innovative ideas to balance industry growth, operational efficiency, and more importantly, safety for all.
General aviation (GA) pilots know all too well that change in aviation is a constant, but it’s also something this group is keenly adept at handling well. Depending on where in the country you regularly fly, it’s possible you’ve encountered some changes spurred by commercial space activity. And if you haven’t, well, it’s probably just a matter of time.
FAA licensed launch and reentry sites, a.k.a. “spaceports,” are expanding geographically and are no longer limited to the coastlines. Becoming familiar with this growing sector of the NAS is just as important to your safety as it is to any humans strapped in and waiting to blast off into space (more on that later).
The FAA collaborates with federal and industry partners to determine the safest path for space launch and reentry operations and how to safely integrate them into the airspace with the least disruption to other users. Let’s take a closer look at this process and see what this might mean for you.
Launching Some New Terms
For starters, no one will ask GA pilots to solve trajectory optimization calculations or measure their altitude in astronomical units. Still, there are some key terms and concepts that can be helpful to know when operating near areas with launch activity. A good starting point is a familiarity with 14 CFR section 91.143, Flight limitation in the proximity of space flight operations. It states:
When a Notice to Air Mission (NOTAM) is issued in accordance with this section, no person may operate any aircraft of U.S. registry, or pilot any aircraft under the authority of an airman certificate issued by the FAA, within areas designated in a NOTAM for space flight operation except when authorized by [air traffic control (ATC)].
14 CFR part 450, which covers space launch and reentry licensing requirements, describes the safety criteria for a launch in Section 450.101, stating that:
A launch operator must establish any aircraft hazard areas necessary to ensure the probability of impact with debris capable of causing a casualty for aircraft does not exceed 1 × 10 ⁻⁶ [one in a million].
So the regulations require the FAA to protect the airspace near a launch or reentry but also require pilots, when indicated, to avoid that same airspace. The launch operators often utilize the expertise of DOD or NASA Range personnel to develop these protective aircraft hazard areas (AHAs) noted in Part 450. They perform complex calculations to determine the risk to aircraft at areas above and around the launch point and under the path of the launch vehicle as it makes its way to space.
🚀 AIRCRAFT HAZARD AREA (AHA) 🚀
Used by air traffic control to segregate air traffic from a launch vehicle, reentry vehicle, amateur rocket, jettisoned stages, hardware, or falling debris generated by failures associated with any of these activities. An AHA is designated via NOTAM as either a TFR or stationary altitude reservation (ALTRV). Unless otherwise specified, the vertical limits of an AHA are from the surface to unlimited. — Aeronautical Information Manual
Consideration factors for AHAs include the type of operation, the launch vehicle’s flight history, as well as its configuration, including how many stages there are, and whether any fairings, skirt rings, batteries, or other spent components will jettison during launch.
“The AHA is essentially a box that encompasses the airspace where the risk to an aircraft exceeds the acceptable limits,” explains Duane Freer, manager of the FAA’s Space Operations Group at the Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Virginia. “Air Traffic Operations then takes that box and determines how to best protect the airspace.”
Air traffic control (ATC) uses a variety of special-use airspace to create an AHA, including a temporary flight restriction (TFR), restricted or warning area, ATC-Assigned Airspace (ATCAA), and a stationary altitude reservation (ALTRV). In some cases, it’s a combination of all five.
“It’s often a mosaic of these airspaces that’s needed to protect the launch area,” says Freer. “We’re limited once we go 12 miles offshore, where we can’t use TFRs or restricted areas.” That’s when warning areas, ATCAAs, and ALTRVs round out the needed protection.
The information in these space launch and reentry hazard areas is relayed to pilots via Notices to Air Missions (NOTAMs), usually 48 to 72 hours in advance. The NOTAM provides details in terms of timing, size, and scope of the restriction and can include terms such as “rocket launch activity,” “space launch,” or “space reentry,” depending upon the type of operation.
For GA pilots, the accompanying TFRs and restricted areas are what you’ll most likely see graphically depicted on a flight planning chart before a launch. But you may also see the ALTRV areas depicted in certain flight planning apps (e.g., ForeFlight) or the term included in the NOTAM associated with the launch. The ALTRV protects the airspace under the projected launch area and debris fields, often further away from the launch sites.
For example, in figure 2, you’ll see an initial AHA — “AHA A” — east of the launch site and another much larger one — “AHA B” — hundreds of miles further east of the launch. Although ALTRVs typically impact the air carrier and business aviation operators more than GA, it’s good to have situational awareness of these zones, particularly when a launch may involve an AHA closer to or over land.
Made in Space
Unlike the familiar axiom in civil aviation, where your landings should always equal your takeoffs, it’s a bit different in the commercial space arena. As shown in the space launch and reentry cadence graph (figure 1), launches far outnumber the reentries. Thankfully that’s by design. For suborbital launches, both the ascent and descent are counted as a launch as they do not achieve orbit and reenter. Additionally, many orbiting vehicles are not expected to reenter to a landing. By design many reenter the atmosphere and burn up high in the earth’s atmosphere.
However, that calculus might soon change due to the expected growth of certain markets, like suborbital space tourism and microgravity manufacturing.
So while current space reentry operations from orbit generally occur in remote areas over water with a minimal impact on GA, future reentry operations may involve more inland reentry operations and require a more watchful eye.
As we’ve detailed here, a lot of planning and preparation goes into having a safe commercial space launch or reentry operation. But just as we hear about presidential or special event TFR violations, airspace violations have also occurred during launch operations. These incursions may not result in scrambling F-35s to intercept the errant aircraft, but they can have some serious and unexpected consequences. In space parlance, these airspace violations are known as range-fouling and can easily result in a scrubbed launch.
“To date, we’ve only had a few cases of range fouling in the U.S., but with the expected increase in operations, there is greater potential for more,” says Glenn Rizner, a senior technical advisor in the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space.
One of these incursions happened at Virginia’s Wallops Flight Facility, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, in 2018. As a commercial resupply flight to the International Space Station was approaching launch (T-0), a small GA aircraft flew near the launch area likely with the intent of getting a good view or picture. The aircraft’s radar track showed it orbiting just off the coast to be in the best position at T-0. Unfortunately its flight path violated the AHA airspace causing the operator to scrub the launch. There were numerous implications from this act, the immediate being the pilot violating 14 CFR section 91.143 and possibly other regulations.
However the implications go far beyond that. The launch operator had to again coordinate with the spaceport and the Range personnel for a new launch opportunity. DOD airspace needs had to be considered. New NOTAMS had to be prepared and disseminated. Air carriers, domestic and international, as well as GA flights again had to reroute around the new designated AHA airspace. One aircraft’s errant action impacted countless NAS operations.
Beyond the NAS implications, a fouled range also presents an obvious danger to anyone onboard the aircraft that commits the incursion due to the risk of falling debris. But did you know it also endangers the lives of any human occupants on the spacecraft and accompanying support personnel? These men and women are in close to proximity to millions of pounds of highly pressurized and volatile propellant. If a launch attempt is scrubbed, the astronauts must be removed from the capsule, and the vehicle de-tanked with meticulous care.
The cost of a scrubbed launch is also significant, ranging upwards of $1 million. Cost considerations include recalled security personnel, road closures, fresh propellants, and impacts to neighboring launch facilities. Launch windows are often tight and dependent on several variables, so it could be hours, days, or weeks before operators can reschedule the launch.
Then there’s the cost and inconvenience factor to the airlines and other NAS operators who have to once again navigate around these areas and possibly incur delays. On the plus side, assuring safety and improving the efficiency around airspace closures for launch and reentry activities is an area in which the FAA has made tremendous strides.
A Stellar Effort
In just the last few years, the FAA has been able to cut airspace closures from four hours to around two hours and, in some cases, as little as 30 minutes. To do this, the FAA leverages a multi-faceted approach that, in addition to improving efficiency, has allowed the agency to maintain an exceptional safety record.
The FAA Air Traffic Organization’s Space Operations Team, led by Duane Freer, is of key importance. Stationed in the “Challenger Room” at the FAA’s Command Center, this team works directly with the launch and reentry operators to provide mission planning assistance and real-time support during launch and reentry activities.
“If there is any kind of problem, the Space Ops Team uses a special hotline with the operator to call out the anomaly or malfunction and employs a contingency plan as needed,” says Freer. He adds that this hotline has been instrumental in gaining real-time situational awareness and dynamically opening and closing airspace.
Another tool, the Space Data Integrator (SDI), adds even more fidelity to operational awareness by providing real-time telemetry data on the vehicle’s location, speed, and altitude. Freer likens the SDI to a radar system that helps his team see whether a space vehicle is progressing on a nominal path. SpaceX is currently the only operator using SDI, but the FAA is in the process of onboarding several others to the system soon.
“Future add-ons to SDI will provide greater efficiencies and push real-time info to controller’s scopes,” adds Freer. “SDI is the foundation of the house we’re building.”
The Culmination of Collaboration
Safely integrating space launch and reentry operations into the NAS may be a complex mission for the FAA, but it’s not a task they shoulder alone. Instead, the agency regularly relies on a host of industry and government partners to execute these safety protocols and help develop and tweak them going forward. As part of a collaborative decision-making (CDM) process, the FAA meets quarterly with all active launch operators, participating government agencies (e.g., NASA, DOD, Space Force), and various aviation community members, to collectively solve and manage issues.
“Just about all of the tools we have today to promote airspace safety and efficiency have been involved with the CDM process in one form or another,” says Freer.
An important result of this collaboration and improved monitoring capabilities is the industry’s stellar safety record and the FAA’s ability to lessen the impact of AHAs on airspace users and immediately release that airspace once it’s safe. That’s good news for everyone, including the GA community.
Maintaining this upward trajectory of safety and efficiency is a collective effort. So how can you be a part of the safety equation when it comes to commercial space activity?
“Start by familiarizing yourself with the local area you’re flying in to see if there is a potential for space operations,” says Freer.
“If you are near a launch or reentry site, you’ll want to conduct additional preflight planning,” adds Rizner. That includes checking NOTAMs and your flight planning tool of choice to verify any future launch or reentry activity. Another safe option is to request Flight Following from ATC.
So the next time you’re ready to “blast off” to your next destination, be mindful of your fellow NAS users, who might be ready to more literally do the same. By working together, we’ll all achieve greater heights.
Tom Hoffmann is the editor of FAA Aviation News. He is a commercial pilot and holds an Airframe and Powerplant certificate.