New flight termination system improves launch tempo

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Dakota Raub
  • Space Launch Delta 45 public affairs

It’s a bright and sunny day on Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The Eastern Range prepares for another launch, the second one this week. Out here, launches are going off back to back due to innovation efforts.

It’s five minutes until launch. The weather is looking great and all rocket systems are ready for takeoff. 

“We are a go for launch,” the range operator announces to the launch team. 

The final countdown to liftoff begins. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, liftoff!”

The boosters ignite and the rocket charges to space, one of many that will be sent up this month.  

With the demand for launch increasing, it is essential to advance old systems in order to keep up with the pace. 

The new Automated Flight Safety System (AFSS), formerly known as the traditional Flight Termination System (FTS), is now being used by some launch companies to increase launch capabilities, readiness and accuracy, while saving time and money. 

The Flight Termination System tracks launch vehicles by sending data between the vehicle and the ground. It is operated by personnel who use instruments such as radar, telemetry, optics and many others. Since these launches require the use of numerous instruments, a period of downtime is required to perform system maintenance. With launch tempo increasing, downtime on the range is not ideal. 

Not only is the Eastern Range having to work around maintenance times, the FTS also has to combat signal transmission, line of sight and coverage issues throughout the launch, according to 1st Lt. Stephen Pitre, Range Engineer, 1st Range Operations Squadron. 

The difference between the FTS and the AFSS is the use of instruments. With the AFSS not requiring the use of all ground-based instruments, this eliminates range maintenance periods, line of sight requirements, coverage and transmission issues, along with the need for personnel on the ground.  

Because range maintenance periods were never fully protected or used to max extent, the transition to AFSS has reduced the percentage of time we need for FTS launch instruments. 

“The AFSS moves computing and analysis to the onboard flight computer so the launch vehicle receives tracking information, GPS, and can determine if it is heading off course,” said Pitre. 

This system determines the health of the vehicle. If it veers off course and is unable to correct it due to health or other issues, the AFSS software will command the vehicle to destruct.

Using the AFSS decreases manning requirements and launch preparation times, and mitigates the risk for instrument outages and scheduling conflicts for the range, which in turn, increases the ability to launch on demand. Our initiative, Range of the Future, is being met by transitioning to the AFSS, which is improving launch operation efficiency that saves significant time and money. 

With the use of the AFSS, on May 26, 2021, SpaceX launched their 29th Starlink payload carrying 60 satellites into orbit from CCSFS. The Starlink satellite constellation mission aims for low-cost but high-performance internet connection throughout the globe. It takes numerous launches to complete the entire satellite constellation, therefore, making the AFSS a beneficial system in saving downtime on the range so they can launch more frequently. 

Finding the right time to launch is not always an easy task. There are many obstacles to take into account when preparing to launch. When a mission to the International Space Station is needed for resupply, such as the CRS-22 mission on June 3, 2021, the range must be prepared when mission partners ask for support. It is important to avoid delays to get necessary supplies and research experiments to the ISS. This research is important because it helps prepare for long missions to destinations like Mars and leads to developments that improve life on Earth. 

Not long after the resupply launch, a satellite for SiriusXM Satellite Radio was sent into orbit. There were just three days of time between this launch and the ISS resupply. These consecutive launches were possible due to the use of the AFSS and the lesser need for downtime on the range. With this system in play, we are able to better support the demands of our launch partners. 

Chief of Space Operations, General John W. “Jay” Raymond encourages innovation at every level. Transitioning to the AFSS ensures we can support future launch partners, launch on demand and move one step closer to becoming the Range of the Future.