Shared Data is a Game Changer for Space Operations

Meet the FAA’s new Space Data Integrator

A zoomed out image of Earth from space. Text on screen reads “The Space Data Integrator.”

This is an exciting time to work in the aerospace sector and the FAA is a big part of our nation’s new space ventures. It’s the FAA’s job to manage the airspace so all users, including space launch and reentry vehicles, can safely share the sky. This may seem complicated, but conceptually, it’s simple. Imagine a highway under construction that requires a temporary road closure. Traffic managers detour the traffic that would normally be on that highway and then move it back when the road reopens. The FAA does the same basic process for the airspace where a launch or reentry occurs.

If you’re wondering exactly why the FAA is involved in space operations, here’s a primer from Wayne Monteith, the agency’s Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation. If you’re still curious, learn more about the way we prepare for launches on this episode of The Air Up There podcast.

In essence, it’s our job to build a “hazard area” (like an imaginary box) around and under a launch or reentry vehicle’s path to protect people on the ground and in the air. The FAA works directly with commercial space and site operators to define procedures for notification, communication and contingencies prior to a launch or reentry.

The FAA uses time-based procedures to identify and re-route aircraft directly affected while the airspace is actively closed. As you might imagine, it takes careful planning to make that happen. The team also uses dynamic windows (flexible periods of time) to identify key mission “triggers” (i.e., loading of rocket fuel) that can help better pinpoint the timing of lift-off or landing that inform when the FAA closes airspace. That means that, in the event something changes ahead of the launch time, we have options ready to keep the national airspace system (NAS) running efficiently and with minor disruptions.

These two procedures are used for space activities from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station/Kennedy Space Center Complex in Florida. Both offer great promise, and by using them, the FAA reduced the length of airspace closures from an average of more than four hours per launch to about two hours. We anticipate implementing the procedures at additional launch and reentry sites later this year.

The agency’s newest integration tool, called the Space Data Integrator (SDI) prototype, recently came online. It provides the FAA’s space operations team unprecedented visibility of a launch or reentry vehicle as it travels through and above the NAS.

The SDI capability automates the delivery of real-time telemetry data from the vehicle operator to the FAA Air Traffic Control System Command Center. Shared data includes vehicle position, altitude, and speed, as well as indicators if the vehicle deviates from its expected flight path. This information allows the FAA to follow the progress of the vehicle along its planned path and monitor whether the vehicle is performing as planned.

This is a big deal because it makes an already safe industry (there have been no fatalities or injuries to the uninvolved public during an FAA-licensed launch, ever) even safer.

Air traffic control revolves around situational awareness and the SDI capability is a game-changer.

As the number of users of our already busy airspace increases, SDI is a critical tool. With this capability, we will be able to safely reopen the airspace more quickly and reduce the number of aircraft and other airspace users affected by a launch or reentry.

Currently, launch and reentry vehicle operators share telemetry data via SDI on a voluntary basis. Partners include SpaceX, Blue Origin, Firefly and the Alaska Aerospace Corporation.

In 2020, the FAA safely integrated 45 space launches and reentries into the NAS, the most in the agency’s history. For 2021, that number could reach 70 or more. The emergence of space tourism is going to drive these numbers even higher in the not too distant future.

The FAA will continue to refine its existing airspace integration tools and procedures and develop new ones so that all users of the NAS can safely and efficiently share the sky.

Watch the FAA space playlist on YouTube.

Cleared for Takeoff

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