New auto-destruct system to increase launch rate

Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right or below. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.

The competition heats up: A new auto-destruct system operating by computer, using GPS, and installed on each rocket should allow the launch rate in Florida to ramp up significantly.

Up until now it took several days to reconfigure the ground-based radar facilities. This system, first used on the most recent Falcon 9 launch, does not require this. It also involves fewer people to operate it. They expect that they will soon be able to launch up to 48 missions per year, some on the same day.



  • Tom Billings

    The operational tempo of current launch facilities is a major constraint on the launch rates of *anyone* using them. This is a major development for commercial companies, launching commercial missions, whose launches are always lowest priority for the government facilities. It will be especially useful when the Brownsville launch pads are activated. The other things a newly built facility can do to speed launch tempo safely would be under-valued if this were left undone, even when Cape Canaveral adopts this. It will help demonstrate just how much the government facilities have to update in both procedures and equipment. When SpaceX can launch once a day, while New Glenn’s maximum tempo from KSC is once a week, the productivity of launch facilities themselves will become a major issue.

  • Edward

    Doug Messier did a nice write up on this, too:
    With more stakeholders demanding access to space, both the Eastern and Western Ranges will begin to launch at unprecedented rates.

    The increase in the launch rate is important, because in the not-so-distant future there are going to be many launches of smaller satellites on their own dedicated rockets.

    It seems that NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center worked on this system:
    The average range cost for each Atlas or Delta launch attempt is on the order of $500,000. In addition, prelaunch tests of the Flight Termination System (FTS) cost $100,000 and tests of the C-band radar tracking transponder and S-band vehicle telemetry system cost another $100,000.

    It is unclear to me how much of that $500,000 is for range safety and how much is for general pad operations, but we can see that there is savings that make the new system seem worthwhile just from the cost savings, but the greatest advantage is the increased access to space.

    According to Wikipedia, both ATK (now Orbital ATK) and SpaceX have also been working on Autonomous Flight Termination (different from the Autonomous Flight Safety System of Robert’s linked article).
    the autonomous system was first tested in August 2014 on the F9R Dev1 prototype booster when the test vehicle had a flight anomaly in a test flight and the vehicle control system issued a command to terminate, and the vehicle self-destructed in the air over the designated test area near McGregor, Texas.

    The rest of the Wikipedia article describes the reason the US destroys errant rockets. “This allows as-yet-unconsumed propellants to combust at altitude, rather than upon the vehicle reaching the ground.” It also describes why Russia does not destroy their malfunctioning rockets. “the rocket is simply allowed to impact the ground intact. Since Russia’s launch sites are in remote areas far from significant populations, it has never been seen as necessary to include an RSO destruct system.

    The article linked by Robert lightly touched on the range safety concerns of flying a first stage back toward populated land. Rockets being launched do not aim toward populated areas, but returning SpaceX rockets come within a few miles of occupied buildings and even Cocoa Beach, just to the south, or housing that is ten short miles farther west of Landing Zone 1.

  • LocalFluff

    Falcon 9 refueling, Antares and Proton in 2013 failed on or near their launch pads. A “flight termination system” wouldn’t have helped there. The only recent launch where it could’ve been applicable is the Falcon 9 CRS-9, but it doesn’t seem to have been used then.

    I doubt that putting an iPhone with GPS in each rocket will improve anything anyone can notice.

    @Edward, Proton if anything could make use of a self-destruct system. It is a tower filled with toxic hypergolic fuel that has to be cleaned up from the ground it is spilled upon. But Proton is finally becoming history and even the Chinese seem to abandon that kind of fuel.

  • Edward

    I’m not very impressed with the Russian attitude toward safety. It is one thing to go overboard, where we are too afraid to try to go to Mars because someone might die in the attempt, but it is another to not have enough concern to “put enough lifeboats on the ship” (this week I’m listening, in my car, to the audiobook “A Night To Remember,” so the analogy is on my mind; it is not a reference to any ISS concerns).

    Russia had a fire aboard their MIR space station, because their quality control in manufacturing oxygen generators was lacking, and many people are still concerned that their QC problems may still be a safety problem. They lost their submarine Kursk, because they did not properly maintain their peroxide torpedoes. They crashed a Progress into MIR, because they encourage successful tests over safe operations with financial incentives to their test conductors to complete tests, which is also why Chernobyl happened. They destroyed the Sayano–Shushenskaya hydroelectric power station, because they started up a suspect turbine in pursuit of a little more electric power during a period of peak consumption. And they have no way of preventing a Proton rocket from crashing into a populated area, which happened to the Chinese:

    After flying for 22 seconds in the direction of the hotel and residential complex, the 426-ton vehicle crashed into a hillside, most of its propellant still on board. The overstressed payload section with the satellite inside had broken off and plunged to the ground moments earlier. … One of the people standing on the roof of the satellite processing building captured the accident on video, even though he was thrown off his feet by the blast wave (the video can still be seen on YouTube). The footage confirms that the rocket crashed just across the road from the hotel for the foreigners. The impact site was right next to the gate of the center, where the large crowd had gathered to watch. Chinese officials claimed that all villagers had been evacuated before the launch, but those claims have been disputed.

    This is one of the videos available: (3 minutes)

    This video shows Intelsat 708 separate from the rocket and the rocket impact the ground: (2 minutes)

    Preventing this and the Nedelin catastrophe are a major purpose of range safety. I forgot to mention Nedelin in my list of reasons why I am not impressed with Russian safety.

    The difference is that when you have centralized control, such as from a dictator, monarch, or communist central committee, the citizens are not considered as being more important than the desires of the central controllers. But when We the People are in control, we insist that there be enough lifeboats, and the government gets the idea that even the rockets need to be reasonably safe. Even if range safety costs $700,000 or more per launch.

    My understanding of SpaceX’s CRS-7 launch failure is that the booster did not deviate from the proper course, thus it did not pose a danger and was not a candidate for auto self destruct.

    I, too, hope that the new Autonomous Flight Safety System will never be necessary to auto destruct any rockets.

  • Alex


    Part of the second video, which you presented above is fake. I mean the part with the bus tour through the village, which as I would guess it was destroyed by an earth-quake, not by the launch vehicle impact. Destruction is to wide-spread.

  • Edward

    Alex wrote: “Part of the second video, which you presented above is fake.

    I do not have firsthand knowledge about the video, but the damage looks similar to the photo at the top of the Smithsonian article that I linked. That photo is described as being at the gate of the launch center, and the article notes that there was widespread damage due to the force of the blast wave, which the article noted was strong enough to throw the videographer of the crash off his feet. The article also described that at the hotel, “every door, window, and piece of furniture was destroyed. Air conditioners were hanging by their wires, toilets were thrown into the hallways, and covers of an underground sewage system pierced the floor.” This suggests that the blast was pretty strong. Which is not surprising.

    More quotes from the Smithsonian article: “‘There were holes in the walls,’ Campbell recalls. ‘In my room, fragments from the rocket were embedded into the backboard of my bed. Anybody who had left their belongings in the hotel would later discover that pieces of cloth had been thrown out the window, only to be sucked into different rooms by the backward-rushing wind that followed immediately after the explosion.’

    The bus for the Western engineers finally arrived, and they headed back to Xichang. The route took them through a village just outside the main gate of the launch center, where the road was jammed with vehicles and animals. The passengers were horrified by what they saw. ‘Every house for several hundred meters was leveled,’ observed the diary-keeping engineer.” Several hundred meters is pretty widespread. It is several football-field lengths.

    For the Chinese post-accident story to be true would require that the village be routinely evacuated before launches, but the hotel staff seemed to expect to be able to remain in the hotel to continue working, rather than be evacuated for the launch. The American launch-support crew, for the satellite, that were on hand did not have the impression that the villagers expected to be evacuated before the launch nor did they see any evacuation activity, and it raises the question of why the Americans were allowed to remain so close to the launch site and the supposedly evacuated village. Indeed, the Americans had seen a large crowd of locals near the launch center gate.

    The impact site was right next to the gate of the center, where the large crowd had gathered to watch. Chinese officials claimed that all villagers had been evacuated before the launch, but those claims have been disputed.

    Contrast this village with the launch control bunkers used in early launches. Those bunkers were build of thick concrete, had specially made thick windows, and were only near launch pads for the smaller, V2-sized rockets, and launch crews thought that was safe enough before they realized just how serious they should be about safety.

    The point, of course, is that range safety is important, is not to be taken lightly, and is intended to prevent these kinds of disasters, because these kinds of disasters can be big.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *