Space To Grow

MITRE experts have been busy charting a flight plan to meet competing needs in US skies

The rapidly evolving commercial space industry presents a challenge: how to support the growth of this innovative industry while maintaining safety and efficiency for all users of the nation’s air and space domains, reports Marlis McCollum.

The commercial space industry is growing – fast. Experts predict a dramatic rise in commercial space launches in the coming years and spaceports are popping up across the United States to accommodate that projected demand.

At the same time, commercial enterprises are introducing an ever-widening variety of space vehicles into the National Airspace System (NAS) and the space beyond it. These vehicles will whisk passengers from continent to continent in a fraction of the time it would take a conventional aircraft to make the trip. They’ll take private citizens on tours of space. In addition, new space launch systems will send constellations of thousands of satellites into orbit. These satellites, as well as high-altitude balloons operating above the NAS, will provide services such as internet access and Earth observation and monitoring.

These innovations offer significant benefit to the populace and the US economy, so the federal government wants to support the burgeoning commercial space industry. But this can’t be done in isolation.

When private companies – or NASA – launch rockets into space, the airspace around the launch site and along the launch trajectory must be closed to other traffic for safety reasons. That forces airlines, the military, and general and business aviation operators to change their flight plans. That costs both time and money. Re-entry operations present similar challenges.

This new competition for airspace also has other implications for the US military, which must have priority and emergency access to the nation’s airspace for defence purposes.

This is a complex arena in which to operate, and it will become far more challenging as commercial space operations expand. The US needs a way forward to better integrate the interests and activities of both government and commercial entities, maintain its strong military defences, protect the financial interests of existing users of the airspace, and support the growth of the commercial space industry. MITRE is leading the charge.

Creating a Framework for Managing the Future of Airspace and Space

Besides the government’s interest in space, the commercial space industry warrants protections as well. Currently a $340 billion industry employing more than 200,000 people, commercial space is expected, by some forecasts, to become a $2.7 trillion business by 2050.

The rate of regulatory and operational change must match the rate of technological advancement, or our country risks losing companies and jobs to overseas markets.

To further complicate matters, no single entity has responsibility for managing commercial space operations. NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, and other federal entities all have roles to play, as do the industry stakeholders themselves.

As the operator of seven federally funded research and development centres, MITRE has a deep understanding of many of these agencies’ missions and the communities they serve. It is now applying that knowledge to address the cross-agency challenge that the growth of the commercial space industry presents.

“MITRE has worked with the DoD on space-related activities and with the FAA on airspace activities for nearly six decades,” says Dean Fulmer, who manages a portfolio of MITRE programmes focused on the emerging challenges the growth of the commercial space industry presents. “We’ve brought our experts together from these very different domains to create a functional architecture for surface-to-space operations in the future.”

“I call it the wiring diagram,” he says. “It shows what kind of information has to flow where, across what platforms, to and from what decision makers in government and industry, and so on.”

Narrowing Down the Three Most Pressing Challenges

The MITRE team began by capturing the architecture used to manage air and space traffic today. They then used several use cases to assess how that framework would need to change to meet future needs.

“We examined things like the safest and most efficient way to coordinate the launch and landing of space tourism flights, capsules returning from space with multiple potential recovery sites, contingency planning for a problematic rocket launch, and diverse space activities from a spaceport,” explains Bob Porter who leads the surface-to-space initiative.

Through these use cases, MITRE researchers identified three primary challenges and focus areas:

  • information sharing for strategic planning
  • traffic management in the transition area
  • coordinating real-time operations

Let’s break down the problems—and possible solutions.

Getting Competitors to Share Information

“One of the biggest challenges is that the different stakeholders make plans without knowing what other operators are planning,” says Andy Anderegg, the chief architect of the new framework. “That’s not safe or efficient.”

For instance, he says, one company might plan to conduct three launches per week out of a particular spaceport. But five other companies might also plan to use that site, creating a demand that exceeds the spaceport’s capacity.

“So the first thing the architecture of the future needs to do is address those blind spots. We need to identify how the different parties can share their information so that they can plan more strategically.”

MITRE envisions the use of ‘mission brokers’ to address that challenge. “One way to help the different stakeholders coordinate their planning,” Anderegg says, “is by using a trusted third party to capture the broader planning picture and then share just enough information to support planning, but without divulging proprietary information.”

Shaping an Architecture for Managing the Transition Area

The second challenge is forming in high-altitude space—also known as the ‘transition area’. It’s the region above the airspace where aircraft fly but below space itself. Historically, this area has been lightly traversed.

That’s changing. Companies are launching high-altitude balloons to serve as space-based cell towers. Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) already traverse the transition area, providing services like weather monitoring and mapping. Soon, private companies’ supersonic vehicles will provide high-speed transportation services in this realm as well. And more and more commercial rockets will travel through the transition area on their way to space.

Some future concepts envision operators maintaining safe separation from one another in the transition area. But as this area gets busier, it will take new processes to ensure safe and efficient access for everyone.

MITRE is therefore calling for high-altitude flight rules and structured traffic flows in the transition region. The FAA already uses structured flows to manage traditional aviation traffic. Its researchers believe introducing similar structures into the transition area will increase the predictability and efficiency of the diverse operations occurring in this space.

Exactly what those rules and flows are would be left to users of the space to determine. “Our challenge is to architect the way stakeholders can collectively solve the problem,” Anderegg says. “The art is in creating an architecture that can help shape the solution without saying ‘this is the only solution that will work.’ You want to leave the possibilities open.”

Coordination for Safe and Efficient Operations

A third challenge the architecture tackles is cross-agency coordination to support real-time operations.

“Because each organisation is managing its own objective, the architecture has to show how we can work together to manage the delivery of these objectives cooperatively,” Anderegg says. “Again, it’s about providing the questions, information, and framework to help the community shape a solution.”

MITRE is offering some recommendations. They include: developing tracking and analysis tools to help agencies coordinate their decisions; a surface-to-space traffic management system that unifies decisions across the public and private sectors; and data sharing networks that bring planning and real-time data together to support collaborative action.

Taking the Architecture into a Testbed Environment

The next step in the initiative is to form a partnership of industry and government stakeholders at a launch site to refine the architecture.

“We’ve selected NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia coast for that purpose,” says Scott Kordella, MITRE’s director of space systems. “We’re partnering with the site’s two space operators, NASA and the Virginia Commercial Spaceflight Authority.”

Wallops is the nation’s third busiest spaceport. The location offers diverse operations, including a variety of public and private rocket launch and UAS operations. That makes it a fertile testbed for the proposed architecture.

The idea is to gather data about the aircraft flying near Wallops and from space launch and re-entry operations. The team would then integrate the data to create a complete picture of the operations occurring at or around the facility.

“We’re going to capture the way Wallops operates today in a modeling and simulation environment, and then test how applying the future architecture might provide value for their operations,” Kordella says. MITRE researchers will use what they learn to further refine the architecture and support improvements at other sites.

Researchers will also engage with a broad spectrum of stakeholders to identify their measures of success and incorporate them into the architecture.

“Using those measures, we can use our modeling, simulation, and analysis capabilities to help evaluate different alternatives for addressing the future challenges,” Kordella says. “We want to help decision makers identify the best path forward.”