Jul 20, 2021 - Technology

How the FAA keeps airplanes and rockets apart in the sky

Image of Space X Transporter-2 rocket blasting off on June 30, 2021.
SpaceX Transporter-2 launch on June 30 at Cape Canaveral. Photo: SpaceX

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.
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