The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has reduced the time that airspace is closed for space missions. According to Simple Flying magazine, the FAA has cut airspace closure in half since 2018, as it went from an average of more than four hours to just over two hours. US airspace is the busiest and most complex in the world and the FAA’s primary mission is safety.
When a commercial space vehicle is scheduled to fly, the FAA uses regulatory and operational means to separate launch and reentry operations from other flights in the National Airspace System (NAS) to ensure safety. According to CNBC, the FAA managed US airspace for a record-breaking 92 space missions in 2022, up 33% from the year prior, and it expects to top that this year.
Relatively large volumes of airspace are closed for extended periods, causing other users to incur delays and other inefficiencies. Most missions are launched from Florida, an area of the US with a very busy airspace. Airlines operated more than 720,00 flights to, from, and within Florida last year, CNBC reported.
We are working on new procedures to reduce the amount of airspace that must be closed prior to operation.FAA
As the frequency and complexity of commercial space activities continue to increase, the current approach will become increasingly unsustainable. The FAA and the commercial space transportation (CST) industry are working together to minimize disruptions by moving from accommodation to integration. “We are working on new procedures to reduce the amount of airspace that must be closed prior to operation, respond quickly to contingencies, and free up airspace so it can be used by other flights as soon as it is no longer needed,” the FAA stated. “In the future, airspace will be managed dynamically, safely minimizing inefficiencies and paving the way for routine access to low-Earth orbit and beyond through the NAS.”
As part of the licensing and permitting process, the operator of a commercial launch or reentry vehicle or must agree with FAA air traffic control to define notification, communication and contingency procedures. Once an operator receives a license or permit, they continue to work with the FAA as the day of operation approaches, providing operation-specific information in accordance with the agreement’s timelines.
The FAA assesses the effect of the operation on the system. This includes identifying a potential hazard area and determining which regularly scheduled flights must reroute, negotiating with the operator as necessary based on the assessment and relevant NAS constraints, developing an airspace management plan, and distributing the plan to affected facilities and other interested parties.
During the operation, the FAA and operator execute their plans, communicating mission readiness and status through hotlines and other means as specified in their agreement. The FAA implements necessary airspace restrictions based on pre-operation safety calculations and monitors mission progress. In the event of a vehicle malfunction, the FAA works quickly to identify the affected airspace and take the necessary steps to ensure safety. As the operation moves toward completion, airspace restrictions are lifted as quickly as possible.
The FAA and the CST industry have been working to develop procedures to more effectively manage airspace and mitigate the effects of launch and reentry in the NAS. The procedural changes will serve as a bridge in integration efforts as the FAA seeks the advanced automation that will be required as the industry continues to grow.
Besides the disruption it has on airspace operations, space travel has another side effect: global warming. Space tourism could have a greater effect on the climate than the aviation industry if left unregulated, a study published in the journal “Earth’s Future” showed last year. According to the study, black carbon particles (soot) emitted by rockets are nearly 500 times more efficient at storing heat in the atmosphere than all other sources of soot combined (surface and aircraft).
Soot particles from rocket launches have a much larger climate effect than aircraft and other ground-based sources.Eloise Marais, co-author of the study
In 2019, researchers from UCL, the University of Cambridge and MIT used a 3D model to explore the impact of rocket launches and re-entries. They also analyzed the impact of projected space tourism scenarios based on the recent multi-billion dollar space race. This resulted in a greater effect on climate.
While the study revealed that the current total ozone loss due to rockets is small, current growth trends around space tourism indicate that it could be damaged in the Arctic during the spring. This is because pollutants from solid-fuel rockets, spacecraft re-entry heating and debris are particularly damaging to stratospheric ozone.
“Rocket launches are routinely compared to emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants from the airline industry, which we show in our work to be wrong,” said co-author Eloise Marais, from the UCL’s Department of Geography. ”Soot particles from rocket launches have a much larger climate effect than aircraft and other ground-based sources. There doesn’t need to be as many rocket launches as international flights to have a similar impact.
The researchers collected information on chemicals from the 103 rocket launches in 2019 around the world, as well as data on reusable rocket reentry and space debris.
They also used recent Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX test flights, as well as Virgin Galactic’s proposed annual, at least daily, launches to build a scenario of a future formidable space tourism industry. This data was then incorporated into a 3D model to explore the impact on climate and the ozone layer.
The team suggests that warming due to soot more than doubles after just three years of additional emissions from space tourism launches. According to the researchers, this is of particular concern because when soot particles are injected directly into the upper atmosphere they have a much greater effect on climate than other sources of soot, since the particles are 500 times more efficient at retaining heat.