SOP`s for Spacecraft Operations

SOP`s for Spacecraft Operations

As the Mission to explore what Space has to offer intensifies in a positive manner, so too is there a global increase in Spacecraft movements. Because of this, the operational relevance nowadays of verbal communications via radio frequency with the astronauts piloting these craft cannot be overestimated. Space shuttle air-to-ground communication is transmitted on one of two designated S-band frequencies.

Messages that are transmitted on frequency travel through space as radio waves, and can be compared in the same manner to radio waves that you receive with a car radio for example. Each spacecraft has a transmitter and a receiver for radio waves as well as a way of interpreting the information received and acting on it. Radio waves from a spacecraft need to be received on Earth, and are often quite weak when they get there. NASA for example has huge radio receivers to gather information from space missions. These must be precisely aimed so that the intended receiving party, in this case NASA, is able to intercept those waves. Likewise, NASA must precisely aim transmissions to spacecraft so that they can in turn hear the relevant messages.

All operational communications are performed in a very structured manner, which ensures short, clear, and unambiguous information transfer. A voice protocol comparable to the standards in aviation radio telephony is used. During a conversation with the space crew all teams on the ground are required to pause their ongoing operations and, if possible, solely focus on the transmission. This ensures overall situational awareness, quick response times in case of questions, and effective information sharing for all parties concerned. All communications are also recorded at the Mission control centers, and can be replayed if required.

For those of you in the Aviation field, do you notice the similarities in procedure between Space Operations and Air Traffic Control?

Now with these procedures being put into place at Mission Control stations across the Globe, shouldn`t all ATC Controlled Aerodromes consider including Spacecraft management and diversion procedures into their Standard Operating Procedures (SOP)? Even those Aerodromes that have runways with a length that falls below 3.5km (calculated as the average length of runway required for a Spacecraft to safely come to a complete stop after landing).

Included in these SOP`s should be items such as:

  • emergency procedures in the case of a space shuttle returning to earth having to divert to the nearest controlled airfield due to low fuel, birdstrike, etc.
  • relevant contact details of the Mission Control operations room
  • priority procedures to facilitate the landing space shuttle due to imminent fuel reserves
  • radio telephony procedures that incorporate spacecraft

In addition to the above, the Airport Operator needs to also have the necessary equipment on the ground to facilitate such an arrival, as well as trained personnel who are able to manage the safety of this craft once it reaches its parking bay. After landing, the crew of a spacecraft goes through the shutdown procedures to power it down which can take approximately 20 minutes to complete. During this time, the Spacecraft orbiter is cooling and noxious gases, which were made during the heat of re-entry, blow away. Once the orbiter is powered down, the crew can exit the craft safely allowing the Ground crew to begin servicing the orbiter. This is not the norm for scheduled aircraft at a commercial operated Airport and requires a whole new approach to the management of these type of craft.

With Space travel being earmarked as a future holiday destination for those fortunate enough to experience this opportunity, is Air Traffic Control and Airport Operations ready to meet all possibilities that these types of commercial ventures are about to embark on? The aviation sector is currently at a point where the industry and regulatory leaders are still trying to implement procedures that will integrate a safe transition for drones into the existing airspace model. The introduction of Space travel arriving somewhat in parallel as a back to back on Commercial Drone Operations, presents a unique shift in the procedures already designed to ensure that Air Traffic is managed in a safe, orderly and expeditious manner. With the slow transition towards a global Pandemic recovery and return to `normal` for the Aviation sector, the stage is set as the industry races against time to ensure that safe Skies, which now includes Space, is implemented. During this critical period consideration towards the development of SOP`s for all contributors of flight including Spacecraft, it is my opinion that this needs to be addressed and prioritised by all key stakeholders as a pro-active approach in the continued support of Aviation safety.

- Dylan Kemlo