The U.S. Air Force says it plans to implement an autonomous flight safety system (AFSS) for all of its space launches in the next five years to make its operations more efficient.
During traditional Air Force launches, a flight termination system uses various sensors, including telemetry, radars, optics and command destruct antennas, to allow operators to track a rocket and destroy it if it veers off course.
But SpaceX has begun using an AFSS, which is attached to a launch vehicle to sense whether the rocket is going astray and needs to destroy itself. The Air Force worked with SpaceX and the Federal Aviation Administration to certify the AFSS, which uses data from Global Positioning System satellites and inertial measurement unit navigation sensors to track a rocket’s path.
According to Air Force Space Command, such autonomy lessens the need to use range infrastructure, which saves money on maintenance and upgrades and allows launches to occur at a faster pace.
“The Air Force supports this autonomy as it allows them to launch with greater agility [and] resiliency, and to reduce the cost of launch,” the command wrote in response to a question.
The first operational use of an AFSS was a SpaceX Falcon 9 cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in February. The Air Force is now working to implement AFSS with all launch providers at the Eastern and Western Ranges, the command said.