Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Federal Aviation Administration Seeks New Tools to Track Spacecraft: Effort comes amid the expected boom in commercial space launches

The Wall Street Journal
Aug. 2, 2016 5:33 a.m. ET

After wrestling for months over how to allow unmanned aircraft to begin flying in U.S. skies, the Federal Aviation Administration is now grappling with a loftier challenge: keeping conventional aircraft safe amid an expected boom in commercial space launches.

Having played catch-up with the proliferation of drones, FAA officials are taking preliminary steps toward enhanced monitoring of space missions. They hope to eventually expand their management of the nation’s airspace to include real-time tracking of rocket launches, suborbital flights and, further in the future, possible supersonic transcontinental passenger trips.

The moves have garnered interest among aerospace industry leaders and on Capitol Hill. The head of the FAA’s space transportation office and industry officials have emphasized that the agency is laying the groundwork for new ways air-traffic systems and controllers will be able to follow space vehicles leaving or returning to Earth.

Currently, FAA controllers work with airlines and private pilots to ensure all aircraft are temporarily kept away from launch or re-entry  areas—such as the airspace surrounding Florida’s Kennedy Space Center—whenever space flights are scheduled.

Such restrictions have worked well, generally relying on 24-hour or 48-hour warnings for civilian air traffic to stay out of exclusion zones that can include many hundreds of square miles and in the case of Florida, extend dozens of miles offshore.

But with the number of commercial launchpads expected to increase nationwide in coming years—accompanied by what some experts project will be dramatic upticks in launch frequencies—the current techniques need to be updated.

If the burgeoning commercial space industry grows as expected, experts predict airlines won’t be willing to spend the extra time or fuel to routinely divert around launch or landing sites.

George Nield, who heads up the FAA’s effort in this area, recently told lawmakers work is under way to rely on “an automated process to take a space vehicle’s real-time position and velocity and convert it into a format” that today’s traffic control hardware and software can interpret and display. The long-term goal, he told a subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, is to incorporate such launches, and the data they generate, into nationwide flight-management systems able to “directly show up on a traffic controller’s screen.”

In prepared testimony to the panel in June, Mr. Nield also indicated another aim is to provide “near-real time error detection” of rockets or returning spacecraft that may have veered off course.

Without such safeguards, the vehicles could “run the risk of conflicts between airports, airlines and the commercial space industry,” according to Taber MacCallum, chief technology officer of World View Enterprises Inc., which proposes to transport space tourists and various Earth-observation sensors using high-altitude balloons.

The first airborne test of what the FAA calls its Space Data Integrator is slated for later this year, using an unmanned Space Exploration Technologies Corp. capsule as it returns to Earth, according to people familiar with the details.

“You need a different system that can track a lot more” spacecraft, according to Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, the industry’s leading trade group.

Space-tourism companies Virgin Galactic LLC, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, Blue Origin LLC, founded by Amazon.com Inc.’s founder, Jeff Bezos, and other startups are pushing ahead with plans to offer thrill rides at the edge of space. But some of these ventures also have raised the possibility of ultimately taking passengers on suborbital flights spanning the globe.

In his prepared testimony to the panel in June, Mr. Nield said spacecraft under development run the gamut from superhigh altitude balloons to capsules using parachutes for landings to spaceplanes with wings, designed to touch down on conventional runways.

As part of preparation for more suborbital traffic, Mr. Nield told the panel, the FAA has been talking to companies that eventually “would like to offer point-to-point travel that enables someone to take off from New York in the morning and land in Tokyo just a few hours later.”

Mr. Nield didn’t elaborate, and people familiar with the details said such discussions are still preliminary and no formal plans have been presented to the FAA.

But agency officials have sketched out a dramatic growth trajectory overall for the commercial space sector, both in the U.S. and overseas. Documents they presented last month to an FAA advisory committee, for example, identified 22 existing launch sites world-wide and listed three new “spaceports” proposed for the U.S.

Some industry estimates peg last year’s global investment in commercial space at around $2.7 billion, more than the total that was spent between 1990 and 2014.

Separately, FAA officials have played a prominent role, along with counterparts from the U.S. State Department and other federal agencies, in devising procedures to effectively give a green light to a California-based company, Moon Express, to send a lander intended to explore the surface of the Moon in 2017.

The decision is expected to become final in the next few days. If the company eventually also gets a formal FAA launch license to send its 20-pound package of scientific instruments toward the Moon, the venture would mark the first time private enterprise—rather than a governmental entity—has launched a mission aiming to go beyond Earth orbit.

Original article can be found here:  http://www.wsj.com

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