The commercial space industry is on the rise. In just the last 12 years, we’ve seen the cadence of U.S. commercial space launch and reentry operations grow from about three licensed operations a year to approximately two per week. As this industry has grown, the FAA has developed a safe operating infrastructure that ensures the safety of the public, and all National Airspace System (NAS) users, including general aviation.
As a GA pilot, there are some key terms and concepts that can be helpful to know when operating near areas with launch and reentry activity. A good starting point is a familiarity with 14 CFR section 91.143 (https://bit.ly/3nMMK6M), Flight limitation in the proximity of space flight operations. It states:
When a Notice to Air Mission (NOTAM) https://notams.aim.faa.gov/notamSearch is issued in accordance with this section, no person may operate any aircraft of U.S. registry, or pilot any aircraft under the authority of an airman certificate issued by the FAA, within areas designated in a NOTAM for space flight operation except when authorized by [air traffic control (ATC)].
Another important safety element is the use of aircraft hazard areas (AHAs) as noted in 14 CFR Part 450 (https://bit.ly/3VTUXCT), Launch and Reentry License Requirements. These are areas of airspace that are blocked off to provide protection to aircraft from launch and reentry space operations. Here’s how the AHA is defined in the Pilot/Controller Glossary:
Used by air traffic control to segregate air traffic from a launch vehicle, reentry vehicle, amateur rocket, jettisoned stages, hardware, or falling debris generated by failures associated with any of these activities. An AHA is designated via NOTAM as either a TFR or stationary altitude reservation (ALTRV). Unless otherwise specified, the vertical limits of an AHA are from the surface to unlimited.
For GA pilots, the accompanying TFRs and restricted areas are what you’ll most likely see graphically depicted on a flight planning chart before a launch. But you may also see the ALTRV areas depicted in certain flight planning apps or the term included in the NOTAM associated with the launch. The ALTRV protects the airspace under the projected launch area and debris fields, often further away from the launch sites.
Being in the wrong place at the wrong time during a launch can present a serious danger to not only the aircraft operator, but also to the personnel involved with the launch. There are also significant cost issues with scrubbing the launch, as well as having to reschedule the launch and the accompanying AHA.
Using a multi-faceted approach, the FAA has made great strides in assuring safety and improving the efficiency around airspace closures for commercial space launches and reentries. The agency has cut the time for airspace closures from four hours down to two hours, and sometimes as little as 30 minutes. But maintaining this trajectory of safety and efficiency is a collective effort. So how can GA pilots be a part of the safety equation when it comes to commercial space activity? Here are a few tips:
- Get familiar with the area you’re flying in to see if there’s a potential for space operations
- Perform some additional preflight planning including checking NOTAMs and your flight planning tool of choice for any future launch/reentry activity
- If possible, request Flight Following from ATC
For more details on AHAs, please see the feature article “Let’s Give ‘Em Some Space” (https://medium.com/faa/lets-give-em-some-space-4028dea2e7d8) in the May/June 2023 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine. Be sure to read the entire issue here (https://www.faa.gov/newsroom/faa-safety-briefing-magazine), which explores the FAA’s role in the exciting and rapidly growing world of commercial space and visit the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation webpage here (www.faa.gov/space).
To see how the FAA safely and efficiently integrates space launches into the national airspace, watch this video (https://youtu.be/bTfEykjnbek).
If you have any questions, please send an email to [email protected].