The FAA’s Space Data Integrator is a ‘game-changer’ for integration of commercial space vehicles in US airspace

By Jenny Beechener

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) begins site testing a new Space Data Integrator (SDI) this month, following five years’ development by the Command Center Joint Space Operations Group and FAA Technical Center. The software receives and distributes launch and re-entry data, integrating this with the FAA’s existing Traffic Flow Management System (TFMS) and Range Risk Analysis tools to generate aircraft hazard areas. “This is like going from non-radar to radar because the en-route controller can see the [space] vehicle and monitor its performance. Now we’ve got a system that gives us operational data which is a game-changer for safety and efficiency,” says Duane Freer, FAA Command Center Space Operations Manager. SDI enables the FAA to safely reduce the extent and duration of closed airspace, respond to contingencies, and quickly release airspace back to the National Airspace System (NAS).

The FAA currently uses time-based operations to manage aircraft hazard areas during launch and re-entry of commercial space vehicles in the NAS. Duane Freer says the “second space race” is behind a 60% increase in these events – rising from 45 operations in 2020 to 72 expected in 2021.

New FAA procedures introduced in the second half of 2020 have significantly reduced the size of the launch window: “Five recent launches have been a game-changer in terms of reducing the impact on the route structure,” he said during the ATCA Technical Symposium 17-21 May 2021. This is especially important to minimise airspace closures in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic routes during launches from Cape Canaveral.

“We are trying to find an integration model based around risk envelops rather than segregation. We are working on procedures for an acceptable level of risk.” This approach becomes increasingly important as more spaceports and commercial space companies enter the field, each with different characteristics. “Different providers have different launch profiles: For example, Virgin Galactic is sub-orbital so basically straight up, straight down. Others are more complicated, such as large payloads launched from Kodiak [Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska] and Vandenberg destined for polar orbit.”

There are smaller operations too, such as Rocket Lab which aims to provide ‘frequent, reliable and responsive space access from the US’ and Astra which plans ‘smaller, more frequent launches’ in low Earth orbit. Meanwhile Blue Origin expects to fly its first passengers into space in July this year followed by similar commercial flights by SpaceX and Virgin Galactic.

The FAA is responding with procedural measures such as SDI which will “develop iteratively with new capabilities” and eventually enable integration of hazard areas on the controller’s display. FAA Future Capabilities Office is working on automation tools that would allow controllers to react in real-time to hazard areas which it expects to field within a 3-5 year timeframe. Meanwhile, the first space collaborative decision making (space-CDM) meetings with industry partners aimed at data sharing – similar to commercial aviation CDM – begin this year. “This has not been done before for launch and re-entry. We are looking for the next step,” said Duane Freer. This has started with members of the CANSO Air Traffic Flow Management (ATFM) Data Exchange Network for the Americas (CADENA) group, for example sharing hazard areas arising from Cape Canaveral operations. “We have a good collaborative relationship with the airline industry with regular briefings for IATA, A4A and others. We are sensitive to this industry’s needs as it gets back on its feet post-COVID.”

Hiring specialist staff is also underway, drawing on different skill sets: “We are getting close to developing operational space positions at the Command Center”.

Longer term, the FAA expects to move away from the current largely manual processes to more dynamic operations. “One of the big pushes from industry is to reduce the current 15-day notice period,” explained Duane Freer. “There are issues, for example we have to distribute NOTAMs 72 to 48 hours in advance, but our goal is to work down that 15-day window to something closer to three days.”

One of the biggest challenges for Duane Freer is “keeping up with the industry”. Operators ranging from the Department of Defense to commercial space companies want fast, flexible access to space. “Right now, we are not fast. We need to shorten the time frames while not degrading the NAS. Collaborative solutions will help to solve that problem.”

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(Image: Shutterstock/iurii)

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