Mobile Launch Range Plan Advances

By | May 24, 2004 | Feature

Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] officials said the company recently completed an important milestone in proving its mobile launch range concept, an effort that could ultimately result in cost savings for the launch industry that, in theory, could be passed onto those that would require launch services.

The concept is this: Instead of tracking the telemetry information of an unmanned rocket (or possibly a manned mission like the space shuttle) from the ground at the launch site, the information would be recorded by a manned or unmanned aircraft, depending on the circumstances surrounding a particular launch.

Recently, Lockheed tested successfully the concept by tracking a Delta 2 rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base with an unmanned aircraft. According to a prepared statement from Lockheed Martin, preliminary analysis indicates that the company’s Range Systems Transformational Laboratory (RSTL) program successfully tracked and recorded several minutes of telemetry data from the rocket after its launch.

The mobile concept grew out of the limitations that exist on the current ground-based tracking systems.

“Right now, if you are talking about a range, you are talking about a fairly concise location like a launch head,” David Meyers, director of business development for space support programs at Lockheed Martin told Satellite News. “And the range is fixed. The telemetry and the radars and the various sensors are all fixed and they have a certain range based on [things like] line of site, [geographical limitations like mountains]. And then you have the horizon to contend with.”

“With an extended range concept such as unmanned aerial vehicles or other types of manned aircraft, they provide you a much longer look at [launch] vehicles as they leave the launch head and they provide contiguous tracking capability, “Meyers adds. “It also permits you to support more mobile operations and transportable operations that are becoming more and more popular around the world to some more remote locations where there is not a whole lot of fixed assets” to track a launch.

The equipment that would be carried by the manned or unmanned aircraft is being called the RIP, or range instrumentation payload and it can be carried by a variety of aircraft. Among the criteria of whether a manned or unmanned aircraft would be used will depend on each individual mission. For instance, if the aircraft was going to be in the air for only six or eight hours and the information needed could be collected at altitudes of 35,000 or 40,000 feet, a manned aircraft could be used. For launches from the equator where an aircraft might need to be airborne for 24 hours, an unmanned flight would be the better choice. The RIP is designed to go to 70,000 feet of altitude and be completely unattended in its remote operation, Tom Drymon, chief architect of the RSTL program at Lockheed Martin said.

Other upgrades being that are currently under consideration include “adding extreme resolution video to the instrument or some long-range external video of the rocket,” Meyers added. “There has been discussion about adding a command destruct feature into the vehicle and also including infrared metric tracking capabilities.”

And End To Ground Ops?

One of the ways the RSTL would be able to save money would be in the possible limitation or outright elimination of ground telemetry recording equipment. By eliminating the use of ground equipment, there could be substantial cost savings associated with the ground tracking systems’ operations and maintenance expenses.

“One would surmise that some of the ground assets might be replaced through the use of this airborne system,” Meyers says.

But he was reluctant to say that all ground-based tracking systems would ultimately be converted to an airborne system.

“There’s a lot of missions at a range and they require different sensors,” Meyers notes. “And without real thorough analysis and working with the various ranges and range users, you may not be able to replace all the sensors they are using on the ground.” He also noted that other factors could limit the amount of ground systems at a launch range, including political and other factors. The systems that may move from a ground-tracking system to an aerial-based system “is one of those things that would evolve through time.”

Commercial And Military Interest

The Satellite and Launch Control Program Office of the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Center and the California Space Authority (CSA) currently is sponsoring the work on the RSTL program. But the concepts are already generating interest in both the commercial and military markets.

Meyers noted that the U.S. Navy has expressed interest in the program, as well as Sea Launch LLC and Boeing [BA].

But from a development standpoint, Lockheed Martin is only working with CSA and the Air Force.

“We haven’t looked for any other partnering activities,” Meyers said, adding, however, that Lockheed Martin is talking to other organizations.

–Gregory Twachtman

(David Meyers, Lockheed Martin, 805/348-2131,

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