FAA activates powerful new system to track spacecraft in near-real time

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has activated a powerful new system that'll enable it to track rocket launches in near-real-time, as well as spacecraft when they reenter Earth's airspace on their way to the ground. The new program is intended to increase the safety of the US's National Airspace System, according to the agency, joining the FAA's existing air traffic management efforts.

The new capability is called the Space Data Integrator (SDI), which is a prototype now in operation intended to receive data about rocket launches and spacecraft reentry. The data includes important details like the rocket or spacecraft's altitude and position that are used to track a launch's actual trajectory in addition to its planned trajectory.

The SDI launch data is sent to the FAA's Traffic Flow Management System (TFMS), which also receives Aircraft Hazard Areas (AHAs) and current status updates on mission events. From there, the TFMS displays the data on its Traffic Situation Display located at the FAA's Air Traffic Control System Command Center for the agency's Air Traffic Organization Space Operations team.

The FAA describes its SDI launch as opening the door to "more dynamically" managing the nation's airspace. This will, among other things, help reduce the amount of time other entities are required to wait for closed airspace to reopen amid rocket launches and spacecraft reentries.

According to the agency, SDI operations kicked off on June 30 with the launch of SpaceX's Transponder 2 mission from Cape Canaveral. The agency plans to likewise use it for the upcoming SpaceX CRS-22 Dragon cargo launch to the ISS. Ultimately, the agency considers this a "critical tool" to managing an increasingly busy national airspace, particularly as the private space industry grows.