NASA, FAA test UAS to track spacecraft in the national airspace

By Patrick C. Miller | January 27, 2017

NASA is using unmanned aircraft systems launched from high-altitude balloons to test equipment that helps the Federal Aviation Administration detect and track commercial spacecraft descending into the national airspace.

Last fall, the Near Space Corp. (NSC) of Tillamook, Oregon, conducted a UAS flight test under a high-altitude Certificate of Authorization (COA), making it the first commercial suborbital space company to fly under FAA rules. Oregon's Tillamook Test Range is part of the Pan Pacific UAS Test Range Complex—one six FAA-designated UAS test sites in the country.

NASA's Flight Opportunities program—under its Space Technology Mission Directorate—funded the balloon flight of the FAA surveillance technology system. The program uses commercial suborbital vehicles and stratospheric balloons to test flight technologies, which raises the technology readiness level of the payloads.

Paul De Leon, Flight Opportunities campaign manager, said the goal is to test and advance technologies the FAA needs for the detection and surveillance of spacecraft entering the national airspace.

"The program is continuing to grow by adding new commercial suborbital launch vehicles as they become viable, which can increase opportunities for maturing technologies much needed for future space exploration," he said.

The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation worked with NSC to integrate the special payload into its High Altitude Shuttle System (HASS)—a lifting body-shaped drone used to carry new technologies to high altitude for testing and then released to fly back and land at the range semi-autonomously.

The stratospheric balloon system ascended to 70,000 feet before releasing the HASS to simulate a winged spacecraft's entry into Class A controlled airspace. The descent back to the launch site lasted slightly more than 30 minutes. Using new surveillance technology, the FAA tracked the HASS drone from its Seattle Air Traffic Control Center and was also observed at the its Office of Commercial Space Transportation in Washington, D.C.

The flight provided a real-world simulation of a spacecraft re-entry to help evaluate the applicability of FAA's Next Generation air traffic control technologies. Because of current FAA UAS regulations, a special new high-altitude COA was required.

"It was great to get this first flight with the new COA under our belt," said Tim Lachenmeier, Near Space CEO. "It took a long time, and a lot of dedicated support from the FAA to get this accomplished.  NSC is very excited about the opportunities this high-altitude UAS COA provides, and the unprecedented ability to support testing of technologies for the commercial space industry."