By: LT William Hughes
Sometimes, solutions to problems come in the places you don’t expect, and it might not be in a field you are even involved in. Take me, for example: I’m a straight stick Surface Warfare Officer, but ask anyone on the BENFOLD I work with and they’ll tell you I’m the biggest space geek ever. I’m always reading some article or another about a new rocket design or a planned mission to some asteroid or moon. With that in mind, I also apply my SWO perspective to what I read about current space programs. I’m also constantly thinking about how we can make things better.
Space is still the final frontier, and we’re still sending rockets up to support manned and unmanned missions. The United States Air Force works with NASA to provide launch facilities for American space missions: Cape Canaveral in Florida, Wallops Island in Virginia, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California are all locations that have seen rockets slip the surly bonds of Earth. Whether said rockets are bound for a low Earth, geosynchronous, or polar orbits, or headed off even to the Moon or beyond to the outer planets and deep space, they all launch from the same pads and use similar infrastructures.
At each facility, powerful radars track every launch to ensure that supersonic rockets do not stray from their intended tracks. In addition to instrument packages that beam telemetry data back to mission control, Notices to Airman and Notices to Mariners (NOTAMs and NTMs) to warn people away from potential debris fields, and high tech cameras to follow the rockets on their downrange, technology exists to get the payload to orbit and get it there safely.
In March of 2014, a fire at a radar facility servicing Cape Canaveral caused enough damage to delay the launches of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V and a Falcon 9 built by SpaceX. ULA’s rocket was slated to carry a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, SpaceX’s was supposed to deliver several thousand pounds of supplies to the International Space Station. Both launches were delayed because a AN/MPS-39 radar was out of commission due to a fire.
What’s so special about this radar? According to the Army’s White Sands Missile Range, the AN/MPS-39 is a C-Band, phased array radar. With a search volume of 60 degrees by 60 degrees, its 5 mega-watt output allows it to track a 6 inch sphere at 120km. I wonder, is there any system out there that can do the same job?
Aegis ships, such as the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke Class Destroyers and Ticonderoga Class Cruisers, are outfitted with SPY-1 radars. SPY has become the workhorse of the Navy, and with good reason: the radar is a beast and the rest of the hardware and software that comprise the Aegis Combat System are even scarier. SPY is an S-Band phased radar that can pump out 6 mega-watts. 60 degree search volume? SPY was designed to shepherd billion dollar warships through fast paced, multi-threat environments. It’s a set of fixed billboard emitters, but with the 4 separate arrays, provides 360 degree coverage from horizon to zenith. Where the AN/MPS-39 has to slew on its mount to gain the same coverage, SPY is electronically steerable and can simultaneously track while scan. Where the Air Force’s radar has a range out to 120km, SPY can see out to nearly 200km, and certain baselines can push out far beyond.
Aegis ships are more than capable to track rockets blasting off. It’s no strain on the radar resources, and having an Aegis ship on station actually gives range officials more options. In addition to the previously used methods to guarantee range safety, the ability of the SPY radar to simultaneously track the rocket and scan for other aircraft could be utilized to spot aircraft inadvertently entering the path of the rocket, and ditto for ships or boats by using the numerous surface search radars onboard. Each Aegis ship has an entire bubble of water space it can continuously monitor. The data links that would be used to pass track data back to mission control could also be used to share information between multiple ships, allowing for an even great degree of monitoring for launch activities.
Norfolk is about a day’s voyage from Cape Canaveral, and Mayport is even closer. On the West Coast, San Diego is a similarly short trip from Vandenberg. The logic is pretty simple: we can allow single point failures in radars to delay already costly launches, or we can use existing, mobile assets of equal and greater capability, already located in the same geographic region, to augment and keep launches on schedule.
The process for solving this issue is the same as solving other problems in different fields. Keep your aperture open, pay attention to what you’re passionate about, and if some idea jumps out at you that seems a bit froggy, don’t be afraid to run with it. I’m not a genius. I don’t have some whamodyne degree in space science physics. I don’t even want to launch a rocket into orbit; I just want to track one.
LT Hughes is the Navigator on the guided missile destroyer, USS BENFOLD (DDG 65). He’s detaching soon to work in the N96 shop at OPNAV in Washington, DC. A self-proclaimed “space nerd,” LT Hughes dreams of one day making a space family and taking space walks.
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