Rocket science

Airborne sensors have been used to track a rocket for the first time in what engineers claim is a major step towards a ‘space traffic control system.’

Sensor technology installed on an unmanned aircraft successfully tracked and recorded several minutes of telemetry data from a rocket after its take-off in California, said developer Lockheed Martin.

Mobile tracking technology could allow rocket launches to take place from a wider variety of locations, freeing them from the need to launch within range of giant fixed arrays of ground-based dishes.

The Lockheed Martin programme, called Range Systems Transformational Laboratory (RSTL), could eventually see many of the tracking systems needed to monitor rocket launches carried out in space itself by mounting them on satellites.

The heart of RSTL is a specially designed sensor, processing and software package called the Range Instrument Payload (RIP). Based on s-band radar and other sensing technologies, the RIP can lock on to and track a rocket as it speeds to the edge of the atmosphere.

In the California test a UAV equipped with the RIP package tracked a Delta II rocket from its launchpad until it disappeared over the horizon. In a full-scale deployment of the system a fleet of UAV drones could follow a rocket all the way to the edge of space, sending back a constant stream of vital data on its trajectory, speed and technical functions from altitudes of up to 70,000ft.

‘It is a major achievement to get solid tracking data from a rocket moving at high speed, especially when you consider that the aircraft is moving around too,’ said Tom Drymon, chief architect of the RSTL project.

Lockheed Martin said mobile launch tracking would allow space flights to take the most efficient route into space, freeing them from the constraints of ground-based facilities. ‘We will be able to provide a corridor into space and offer a tremendous amount of flexibility to supplement ground-based launch facilities,’ said Drymon.

RSTL could be a precursor to rocket launches being controlled largely from space via satellite-based systems.

Lockheed Martin hopes to add further sensing equipment to the RIP package, including high-resolution video and infrared tracking systems. The US space industry hopes mobile launch ranges will reduce the need to carry out expensive overhauls of ground control centres and cut the cost of space flights by automating many of the launch control systems.

Lockheed Martin is carrying out the RSTL programme for the California Space Authority and the US Air Force and Space Missile Centre.

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