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Intelligent Machines

Here Is the Safety Trick That Will Help SpaceX Fly You to the Moon

Automating rocket safety could catalyze rapid growth in the commercial space industry.

To put itself in position to deliver on its promise to fly tourists to the moon next year, SpaceX has had to completely reinvent the way it ensures that rockets won’t fly off track and endanger lives.

Working with the U.S. Air Force, the company has developed autonomous rocket-tracking technology that makes it possible to fly its next-generation launch vehicle. It also dramatically cuts the cost of a rocket launch and makes it possible to launch on much shorter notice—both of which could be a boon not just for SpaceX but for the entire U.S. space industry.

SpaceX’s bold near-term plans rest on its Falcon Heavy launch vehicle, whose inaugural launch is slated for this November at Cape Canaveral. They will also require three separate rockets to be returned back to the ground after each Falcon Heavy launch. SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, which also has big ambitions for space tourism, have separately pioneered the concept of returning booster rockets so that they can be reused, which has the potential to make spaceflight cheaper by a factor of 100 (See “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2016: Reusable Rockets”).

But returning three rockets wouldn’t be possible with the traditional system that safety crew members use to track a rocket after it launches—and to blow it up if it deviates from its path in a way that poses a risk to the public. Officials from the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, which is in charge of safety for launches from Florida’s coast, are equipped to track and destroy only two objects flying simultaneously. The new technology, which the Air Force calls the autonomous flight safety system (AFSS), does not have this limitation.

The potential benefits go deeper than that, though. Rocket launches traditionally require extensive ground communications infrastructure, and humans monitoring this data from the ground must send a command to the rocket to destroy it if necessary. The AFSS instead relies on GPS onboard the rocket to determine whether it has deviated from a programmed safe flight path, and if the rocket must be detonated, the system will do so on its own. The new system requires only 82 workers on the ground, compared with 245 for the old one, and much of the infrastructure is no longer required. This significantly cuts the cost of a launch, and the Air Force needs much less time to prepare for it.

The AFSS will help increase launch capacity and meet the rising demand for commercial space launches in the U.S., says Brigadier General Wayne Monteith, commander of the 45th Space Wing and director of the Eastern Range, a rocket and missile launch range operated by Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. In addition to the impending rise of space tourism, a number of firms aim to launch large “constellations” of small satellites for imaging, telecommunications, and other applications (See “A Big Bet on Small Satellites”).

The system can also track a rocket further down range than the conventional system, which loses control of the rocket once it flies beyond the line of sight. And it can destroy an errant vehicle several seconds sooner than a human can. It would function mostly the same way if the rocket were carrying people, but the passengers would have time to bail out before the system blew itself up.

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The AFSS has already flown on eight successful operations, all of them on SpaceX rockets, according to Monteith. SpaceX has developed a proprietary version, but the core technology is available for other companies to adapt to their own rockets. SpaceX declined to comment.

Though the technology is the culmination of decades of work within the military and at NASA, it probably wouldn’t be a commercial reality today had SpaceX not gotten involved, says Monteith. The company simply doesn’t want to have to schedule launches months in advance. “If they are ready to go next week, they want to be able to go next week,” he says.

That’s not possible yet, but Monteith says 30 days is doable. His goal is to be able to launch 48 times per year by 2020—more than twice as often as his 45th Space Wing launched last year. If all goes as planned for SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others, he says, demand will be high enough by then for rockets to launch from his range nearly every week.

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