How the FAA keeps airplanes and rockets apart in the sky
With space launches occurring more frequently, the skies are getting crowded, requiring new technology that the Federal Aviation Administration says will minimize potential conflicts.
Why it matters: Each time a satellite — or billionaire — is launched into space, the FAA has to close airspace to commercial airlines. That requires pilots to reroute and take less-efficient paths, often resulting in delays for airline passengers.
- And since many rockets are now reusable, pilots have to yield for spacecraft coming back to Earth too.
What's happening: The FAA is rolling out a system that allows it to track a space launch or reentry vehicle in near-real time as it travels through the National Airspace System.
- The Space Data Integrator (SDI) prototype automatically delivers data about a rocket's position, altitude and speed to the FAA's Air Traffic Control System Command Center.
- Knowing precisely where a rocket is — including whether it deviates from its expected flight path — allows air traffic controllers to better manage federal airspace.
- The system can also display and share "aircraft hazard areas" that may contain falling debris from a launch or reentry vehicle.
- Four commercial space companies — SpaceX, Blue Origin, Firefly and the Alaska Aerospace Corporation — have agreed to share data with the FAA.
Driving the news: The technology was first used June 30 with the SpaceX Transporter-2 launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
- FAA officials say the initial results are promising, showing they can shorten airspace closures from an average of about four hours to two hours.
What they're saying: “This is a critical tool as the number of users of our already busy airspace increases,” said FAA administrator Steve Dickson.
- “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.”
The bottom line: The cadence of space launches has been rapidly increasing, from once a year in 2011 to about once a month in 2016, and now roughly once a week.
- In 2020, the FAA safely managed 45 space launches and reentries into the National Airspace System, the most in the agency’s history. For 2021, that number could exceed 70.