Autonomous rocket tracking

Working with the U.S. Air Force, Spacex has developed autonomous rocket-tracking technology that makes it possible to fly its next-generation launch vehicle.

Spacex has also dramatically cuts the cost of a rocket launch and made it possible to launch on much shorter notice.

The Spacex Falcon Heavy will be returning three rockets for landing and reuse. 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. New technology, which the Air Force calls the autonomous flight safety system (AFSS), is not limited to tracking two objects.

The AFSS 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.

Spacex 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 Brigadier General Wayne Monteith, commander of the 45th Space Wing and director of the Eastern Range, 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.

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – OCTOBER 07: A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket attached to the cargo-only capsule called Dragon lifts off from the launch pad on October 7, 2012 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The rocket is bringing cargo to the International Space Station that consists of clothing, equipment and science experiments. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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