A SpaceX Automated Flight Safety System (AFSS) for the company’s Falcon 9 rockets permitted three launches within 11 days of one another in May and early June, U.S. Space Force (USSF) said.
AFSS is to replace the ground-based Flight Termination System, which requires USSF personnel to use radar, telemetry, and other data to initiate and track launches and to abort them, if a rocket goes awry. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-approved AFSS provide GPS and tracking data aboard rockets to permit the rockets to self-destruct, if needed.
“With the demand for launch increasing, it is essential to advance old systems in order to keep up with the pace,” USSF said. “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…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.”
On May 26, a Falcon 9 carrying 60 Starlink communications satellites launched into orbit from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla. On June 3, a Falcon 9 from NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida launched to carry supplies to the International Space Station for the Commercial Resupply Services-22 mission. On June 6, a Falcon 9 carrying an SXM-8 digital radio satellite for Sirius XM launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla.
“These consecutive launches were possible due to the use of the AFSS and the lesser need for downtime on the range,” Space Force said. “With this system in play, we are able to better support the demands of our launch partners.”
In addition to required maintenance, FTS also must contend with combat signal transmission, line of sight and coverage issues during launches, Space Force said.
“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,” per the service. “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.”
On Feb. 19, 2017, SpaceX used an AFSS for the first time on Falcon 9 for the CRS-10 mission in what marked the first operational use of an AFSS for the U.S. military’s space ranges. Alliant Techsystems, now part of Northrop Grumman [NOC], developed an AFSS in 2013, and Rocket Lab announced on Dec. 9, 2019 that it had flown an AFSS for the company’s Electron rockets. United Launch Alliance–a partnership between Boeing [BA] and Lockheed Martin [LMT]–has said that it will fly an AFSS on its future Vulcan Centaur rockets before the Oct. 1, 2025 Space Force deadline. ULA’s Delta and Atlas rockets have not had AFSS.
On June 29, the FAA said that the agency has approved AFSS for use on SpaceX, Rocket Lab, and Virgin Orbit rockets.
A Nov. 13, 2019 Autonomous Flight Safety System Implementation memorandum from Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, the future head of USSF, laid out a Range of the Future 2028 initiative to move to all-autonomous USSF launches by the start of fiscal 2026 and to require space launch companies using the USSF Eastern and Western Ranges to transition to an AFSS by Oct. 1, 2025 (Defense Daily, Dec. 22, 2020).