VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
Working alongside mission partners, members of the 30th Space Wing’s safety office have quietly put in numerous hours ensuring the safe and successful utilization of a system known as an Autonomous Flight Safety System. The AFSS is a device that is placed on the rocket and collects a variety of essential data from the vehicle during flight. This data is then used to determine if the rocket is maintaining a safe flight or if termination is required.
With 30th safety personnel ensuring the smooth integration of the system, SpaceX’s CRS-10 mission to resupply the International Space Station, on Feb. 19, marked the first time the system was actively used to protect public safety.
“Autonomous Flight Safety Systems have been flown on various launch vehicles but only as a ride along, meaning they are not actively controlling the vehicle’s termination system,” said Kevin Case, 30th SW range safety engineer. “SpaceX has flown various versions of the AFSS system to refine their design and processes for autonomous launches. SpaceX’s CRS-10 mission was the first launch actively utilizing the AFSS to protect public safety.”
Although the CRS-10 mission did not launch from Vandenberg, members of the 30th safety office were instrumental to the development and deployment of this revolutionary new capability.
“Safety supported multiple engineering test flights and risk reductions flights that served as a path finder for the first operational use of AFSS on the Falcon 9 CRS-10 launch from the Eastern Range,” said Jay Reid, 30th SW safety office flight analyst and aerospace engineer. “Safety’s support included developing a (Mission Data Load) for each flight and analyzing the data collected following the launch. This effort allowed both ranges to gain confidence in AFSS and refine the rules and processes used to support CRS-10. Safety’s involvement in the engineering test flights and risk reduction flight was crucial in the development and approval of a standard set of rules and processes for Falcon 9 AFSS missions from both ranges. Without this effort, the Western Range would not be ready to support their first AFSS launch planned for this summer.”
As opposed to the currently commonplace system of a highly trained, human operator, known as a Mission Flight Control Officer, giving the order to destruct – the AFSS streamlines the determination to destruct in the event of a safety risk.
“Conventional flight termination systems use tracking data to display the launch vehicle’s status to a Mission Flight Control Officer,” said Case. “The Mission Flight Control Officer evaluates vehicle performance compared to the planned trajectory and protection zones. If the vehicle violates these rules or zones, the Mission Flight Control Officer issues an arm and destruct command dispersing vehicle propellants to render the vehicle non-propulsive and containing resultant debris within a controlled area. The Autonomous Flight Safety System uses onboard sensor data to evaluate vehicle performance against a set of predefined mission rules.”
The CRS-10 mission is expected to be just the beginning of the mechanism’s implementation, and experts believe the demand for the automated system will steadily grow with the continued support of the 30th safety team.
“Range users are interested in AFSS based on the Core Autonomous Safety Software, as the CASS provides the logic for evaluating mission rules and computing a safety recommendation to the host system for action, and SpaceX is the first to fly the system operationally,” said Case. “There are several other programs currently working with the 30th SW, 45th SW, and FAA to design, test and deploy AFSS based on CASS for use on their launch vehicles. Autonomous flight termination will continue to grow as more are fielded and knowledge of the system’s capability and flexibility grows.”