Integrating space launches within the international airspace ecosystem


Luke Winfield, Operations Manager at Spaceport Cornwall, outlines the challenges involved in integrating spaceflight operations within international aviation networks.

Space technology has revolutionised the way we live our lives.

The evidence is all around us, although more obvious in some ways than others. Day to day it helps us keep in touch with family and friends, predict the weather, find our nearest ride-share, make card payments and access a repository of the world’s knowledge via the internet. Satellites keep an eye on our fragile Earth allowing us to study global warming, monitor disasters, identify diseased crops and improve agricultural efficiency to feed our growing population. Strategically and tactically, our militaries rely on navigation, secure communication and information services to keep us safe, much of which is derived from space-based data.

The changes are also hard to miss in the aviation industry. Inertial Reference Systems (an Apollo programme spin-off) and global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) allow us to cross oceans, navigate mountains and deliver precise-approach and autoland capabilities with unprecedented accuracy. SATCOM provides aircrew with access to a medical professional on every flight, immediate weather updates, Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) and ADS-B surveillance. When things go awry, satellites receive 406Mhz emergency beacons to locate aircraft in distress. Airspace management relies on these modernising factors to deliver the same reliable service to a more congested European sky.

Policymakers are increasingly aware of the importance of space data to the functioning of modern society and are seeking to deliver higher assurance of access to it. The UK has committed to growing the domestic space sector from 5% to 10% of the global market by 2030, alongside the LaunchUK programme to develop national capabilities for space launch. Spaceport Cornwall is a frontrunner, with the site due to deliver horizontal launch from Summer 2022. However, this presents an interesting challenge to integrate launch operators, among other new entrants, with the existing airspace management strategies. The solution to this challenge spans far beyond the UK and will require an international effort to deliver mutual benefits to Europe as a whole.

Spaceport developments

Spaceport Cornwall has all the makings of a world-class spaceport. Located at Cornwall Airport Newquay, its proximity to the coast, low population density, uncongested airspace, long runway, developed air traffic services and ease of connection to population centres all work in its favour. The site is one of several designated as UK spaceport developments. Unlike a traditional vertical site, Spaceport Cornwall is developing services and infrastructure to support the test, integration, take-off and return of horizontally deployed launch systems. This distinction also represents a fundamental difference in how the airspace is to be used.

For a vertical spaceport, the launch will always take place from the launch pad, and so the trajectory remains fixed, varying only with azimuth (direction of launch). The affected airspace, land and marine areas referred to as the "range" therefore also remain fixed. On the other hand, horizontal sites such as Spaceport Cornwall offer a gateway to the skies, with the launch operators themselves designating the launch range based on considerations such as desired orbital parameters, ground station reception, overflight casualty risk, stage and fairing drop areas, environmental effects, political boundaries and aviation network impact, to name just a few. A fixed airspace construct for the area surrounding a horizontal site is therefore difficult to design, as the launch location will likely differ between launches, and even more so between operators. For example, a certified carrier aircraft such as Virgin Orbit with flight-proven technology launching over the Atlantic may not require departure and transit airspace segregation, whereas a spaceplane such as Sierra Space's Dream Chaser returning to land from orbit may require a much larger segregated area.

Part of our role then, as the spaceport licensee, is to support launch and return operators as they reserve and segregate the airspace required for their particular mission, and provide any services required as a result. Services required will vary from operator to operator; for some, it will be as simple as a departure NOTAM, imposition of a safety clear zone and emergency services on standby. For others, it may extend to include range monitoring, notification, coordination, tracking, Danger Area Crossing Services (DACS), telemetry reception, mission control and beyond.

The challenge ahead

It’s unfortunate that the global spaceflight industry does not benefit from an overarching organisation such as ICAO to issue internationally agreed standards and practices. One does not need to look very far to notice the effects: the edge of space is defined as either 50 kilometres, 50 miles, 62 miles, 100 kilometres or 122 miles, depending on who you ask1. This begs the question: until what altitude does sovereign airspace apply, as granted by the Paris Convention of 1919?

Launch from the USA, Russia, Japan, China, India, French Guiana or other space-faring states have one or perhaps two Flight Information Regions (FIRs) to contend with; launch from Europe must consider many more, due to the close proximity of neighbouring airspaces. Each state has different airspace change processes, space law and safety standards, making one launch through multiple sovereignties a challenging task. The complexity of achieving a safe, efficient and compliant launch range in European airspace is not to be underestimated; however it can be achieved with solid international cooperation. The UK Space Agency is hard at work to achieve this, recently announcing Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with Iceland and the Faroe Islands, and mutual agreements with Norway, Jan Mayen and Greenland regarding the use of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and sovereign airspace for stage return, fairing return and overflight. In addition to national space agencies, EUROCONTROL's Network Manager (NM) is also a key player in the coordination of international Air Traffic Management (ATM), maintaining regular contact with Spaceport Cornwall since the planning stage.

A key consideration in the selection of a launch range, as mentioned earlier, is the impact on other airspace users and the ability to integrate with the network. With recent trials undertaken to remove the Organised Track Structure in the North Atlantic2 and implement free route airspace, this may pose a challenge for early identification and avoidance of high-traffic areas. This particularly affects Spaceport Cornwall and other UK launch sites, with the North Atlantic both an excellent asset in accessing many desirable orbits, and a detriment in the complexity of ATM and integration.

While the "flexible range" concept of horizontal sites means the selection of the launch range is not a spaceport-controlled parameter, the reduction of adverse impacts of launches from Spaceport Cornwall is of utmost importance. Spaceport Cornwall is striving to be the most sustainable launch site on the planet, and this goes further than just a tagline; it means championing the successful integration of traditional airspace users with spaceflight technology to the maximum extent possible.

For the stars to align

The future of European spaceflight seems bright. With multiple spaceports in the UK funded, the National Space Strategy published in September international agreements maturing and Spaceport Cornwall planning a pathfinder launch in Summer 2022, there's a lot to be excited about. However, there is also a lot of work to do to integrate spaceflight operations with international aviation networks. That's no easy task, considering each new entrant will have its own concept of operations for using the airspace, from the sea to the stars. Examples of such use cases include captive-carry launcher systems, balloon launch, vertical systems, reusable systems (launch and return), hypersonic point-to-point travel, High Altitude Platform Systems (HAPS), and orbital and sub-orbital human spaceflight. Each use case has differing impacts on other airspace users; these somehow need to be met with a structured approach to managing and integrating the activities.

New challenges often demand new solutions, and it's clear the burgeoning development in the sector cannot be regulated in the same way as commercial air traffic. For regulators, Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) and network managers, being receptive to change is necessary to be ready for the future of aerospace technology. But we must avoid trying to reinvent the wheel. The United States, for example, has decades of experience in this area and is beginning to integrate space activities with the National Airspace System (NAS) in a more streamlined fashion. Lessons learned must not be lost on European stakeholders, just because there are regional differences.

Perhaps a key enabling factor in the development of sustainable space launch will be the integration of Air Traffic Management with Space Traffic Management (ATM/STM). Initiatives such as the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) Joint Undertaking's ECHO Project, funded by the European Union's Horizon 2020 programme, will certainly help to deliver a better industry-wide understanding of what's coming in the future of aviation, and how to be prepared for it.

It’s an undeniable truth that space technology improves life here on Earth. Our citizens, industries and militaries rely on satellite data for many functions, and a modern world without it would be stranded. As European states such as the UK progress in developing spaceports to secure access to orbit, new use-cases for upper airspace will soon begin to materialise. Incorporating these activities within the existing European airspace construct is a two-sided coin. On one side, integrating future airspace users into the current ecosystem and defining the cross-over between the ATM/ STM; on the other, streamlining national processes within an international environment. International coordination is paramount to minimising the impact on existing airspace users and realising the mutual benefits of reliable access to space for Europe as a whole.

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