Sunday, May 28, 2023

How SpaceX and Elon Musk could delay your next flight

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Shreya Christina
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You can usually blame an airline flight delay on a handful of common suspects, such as inclement weather, mechanical issues, and tarmac traffic. But thanks to the rise of the commercial space industry, there is now a surprising new source of air traffic disruption: rocket launches.

In recent weeks, flights to and from Florida seen a sharp increase in delays† Palm Beach International Airport registered more than 100 delays or cancellations only on April 15. (Some of these can be attributed to an increase in the private and charter flights.) It’s even worse at Jacksonville International Airport, where there were nearly 9,000 flight delays in March. Last week, federal regulators Met to discuss these disruptions, which reflect many of the ongoing challenges facing the aviation industry, including storms, the rising cost of jet fuelthe Covid-19 pandemic and a shortage of airline personnel† But in Florida, a growing number of space launches — especially those in the Cape Canaveral area — are also complicating flight schedules.

“They are closing off significant airspace on the east coast before, during and after a launch. That traffic has to go somewhere,” John Tiliacos, executive vice president of finance and procurement at Tampa International Airport, told Recode. “It’s like putting 10 pounds of potatoes in a five-pound bag, overloading an already limited airspace on Florida’s west coast even more.”

While these delays are currently concentrated in Florida, this problem could get much worse, especially as space flights increase and new launch facilities or spaceports open in other parts of the country. The situation is also a sign that the arrival of the second space age could have an unexpected and even extremely uncomfortable impact on everyday life.

The spaceship problem is relatively simple: Air traffic controllers currently have to ground or divert flights during launches. To break through the atmosphere and reach space, rockets must first travel through airspace controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which oversees air traffic control centers and flight navigation across the country. While these missiles typically spend only a few minutes in this airspace, they can create debris, as consumed pieces from rocket hardwareeither because they were designed to drop their payload in several stages, or because the mission failed. Reusable boosters used by some spacecraft, such as Falcon 9 . from SpaceXre-enter this airspace.

To ensure that planes are not hit by this debris, the FAA usually stops flights within a rectangular air block that can stretch from 40 to hundreds of miles in length, depending on the type of launch. Usually there is about two weeks notice for each launch, during which time air traffic controllers can develop alternative arrangements for the flights scheduled for that day. While a launch takes place, aviation officials monitor the vehicle’s entry into space, then await notification from experts who analyze the trajectory of debris created by the launch in real time. If there is debris, air traffic controllers are on standby until it falls back to Earth, which typically takes 30 to 50 minutes. Once that happens, regular flights can return to their normal flight paths.

A single space launch can disrupt hundreds of flights. For example, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch in 2018 – the same flight that was infamously shot down Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster Into Spaceaffected 563 flightscreated 4,645 minutes delay in totaland forced planes to fly extra 34,841 nautical miles, according to data from the FAA. Those extra kilometers add up quickly, especially when you consider the extra fuel and CO2 emissions. Researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, estimate that a single space launch could cost airlines as much as $200,000 in additional fuel by 2027and as much as $300,000 in additional fuel over the next decade.

The FAA insists it is making improvements. Last year, the agency launched a new tool, the Space Data Integrator, which will share spacecraft data more directly during launches and allow the agency to reopen airspace more quickly. The FAA also says it has successfully reduced the duration of launch-related airspace closures from about four to just over two hours. In some cases, the agency has managed to reduce that time to just 30 minutes.

“An end goal of the FAA’s efforts is to reduce delays, route deviations, fuel economy and emissions by commercial airlines and other users of the National Airspace System as the frequency of commercial space operations increases,” the agency said in a statement.

And the frequency of launches is increasing. There were 54 licensed space launches last year under the auspices of the FAA, but the agency thinks that number could grow in 2022 thanks to the increase in space tourism, the growing demand for internet satellites and upcoming space exploration missions. These launches could also become more common in other parts of the country as new spaceports, which often… build on or near existing airportsstep up operations. The FAA is already licensed more than a dozen different spaceport locations in the United States, including Spaceport America in New Mexicowhere Virgin Galactic launched its first flight last summer, as well as the Colorado Air and Space Port, a space transportation facility located in only six miles from Denver International Airport.

The role of the FAA in the rise of the commercial space industry is becoming increasingly complex. In addition to launching certifications and licensing, the FAA’s responsibilities include studying the environmental impact of space travel and the monitoring of new spaceports. The office will eventually have to to monitor also the safety of space passengers. This is in addition to all the other new types of flying vehicles that the FAA also has to keep an eye on, such as drones, flying air taxis, supersonic jetsand even, possibly, spacefaring balloons

“Where things are disputed is more about, how do all these different types of vehicles fit into the system that the FAA is in charge of?” Ian Petchenik, who leads communications for the flight tracking service Flightradar24, told Recode. “Things are getting much more complicated, and having a way to figure out who has priority, how much space they need, and what the safety margins are, I think is a much bigger question in the long run.”

While we are still in the early days of the commercial space industry, some have already expressed concerns that the agency is not on the right track. The Air Line Pilots Association warned as early as 2019 that the FAA’s approach could: become a “prohibitively expensive method of supporting space operations”, and has urged the agency to continue to shorten the duration of airspace shutdowns during space launches† At least one congressman, Representative Peter DeFazio, is already concerned that the FAA is prioritizing commercial spaceflight over traditional air travel, which serves significantly more people

Air delays aside, the burgeoning aerospace industry has already impacted everything from the reality television we get to watch and the types of jobs we can get to international politics and – because of the industry’s potentially huge ecological footprint – the threat of climate change. Now it seems that the commercial space industry may also influence the timing of your next trip to Disney World.

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