After the launch of the SpaceX ship; The Coast Guard is accelerating change

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The U.S. Coast Guard changed its procedures following the intrusion of a cruise ship into a SpaceX launch pad earlier this year, a high-profile incident that underscored the need for continued conversations about how to manage the confluence of space and maritime traffic.

Among the changes underway are updated “exclusion zones” for launches and new, modernized ways to broadcast start updates for ship captains.

Addressing a crowded National Space Club Florida Committee luncheon in Cape Canaveral on Tuesday, Captain Mark Vlaun said several changes had been implemented since Royal CaribbeanHarmony of the Seas entered an exclusion zone in Januaryforcing SpaceX to clean up a Falcon 9 rocket launch. Some of these changes had already been underway for years, while others are more recent.

Launch Risk Zones, also known as Exclusion Zones and No Go Zones, are areas of the Atlantic Ocean that are closed to marine traffic during rocket launches. Their boundaries are defined primarily by the rocket’s trajectory and payload.

“It’s the second busiest cruise port in the world,” Vlaun said, leader of the Jacksonville Coast Guard Unit responsible for monitoring launch areas, said Tuesday. “There are times, especially like a Sunday night, when 11 to 15 cruise ships leave this port.”

The clean launch was scheduled during this prime-time window: 6:11 p.m. on Sunday, January 30. Harmony of the Seas, the third largest cruise ship in the world capable of accommodating nearly 9,000 passengers and crew, violated the launch danger zone a few miles but was unable to clear it in time for takeoff.

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Vlaun said the incident was at least partly caused by the shipping industry’s use of paper to disseminate information. Captains and crew are often informed of hazards on paper, as notable obstacles are usually static and do not change often.

“In the maritime industry, rocks don’t appear overnight. Buoys don’t move every day. We can publish them on paper,” Vlaun said. “Four or five days or even a week is probably still good data.”

“But five-day-old space launch information isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on,” he said, referring to ever-changing timelines and last-minute updates that include new settings such as unique flight paths.

Falcon 9 finally launched the Italian Space Agency’s second-generation COSMO-SkyMed, or CSG-2, satellite a day later on the fifth attempt. Vlaun said he anticipated some sort of consequence for Royal Caribbean’s trespass, such as a fine, but discussions are still ongoing.

Vlaun leads Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville which, in addition to its traditional maritime responsibilities, oversees space-related operations and their intersection with water.

Jacksonville’s responsibilities include ensuring that the immediate areas below rocket launch paths are clear of ships; provide search and rescue support in the event that astronauts abort a launch over the Atlantic Ocean; coordinate traffic around ports on launch days; and clearing areas for the smooth splashdown of capsules after astronauts complete International Space Station missions.

And because astronauts returning from the ISS can land in any of the seven landing zones around Florida, its teams often scramble to provide coverage in this huge area of ​​responsibility. Ships can only travel that fast.

“We had a special missions unit, fully equipped, in the Universal Studios (Orlando) parking lot trying to figure out if they were going left, right, or north,” Vlaun said. “That’s the kind of stuff we need to do now.

“It gets really tactical and complex when we get to some of these landing operations, which can happen even 12 hours later and still be hundreds of miles apart,” he said. he declares.

His team’s decisions also have an impact on other industries: if the tables were turned and the rocket delayed the departure of cruise ships, tens of thousands of travelers could see ripple effects that extend to ‘to Orlando International Airport and beyond.

Work the problem

Coast Guard Capt. Mark Vlaun is the commander of Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville, which includes space-related operations.

Vlaun said three major changes have been implemented or are being implemented to better support launch activities:

• Provide more digitized means of disseminating information to industry compared to the traditional use of paper. The Space Force and Coast Guard, for example, have started producing QR codes linked to Space Launch Delta 45 website with launch danger zones.

• Move away from the former safety zones set up for the space shuttle. Until about two months ago, Vlaun said he had four choices for ‘neglect zones’. They were larger than needed and often in the wrong place, but after more than two years of work, areas can be closed off more effectively around a rocket’s flight path. This leaves more open water for ships to travel.

• Finally, the Coast Guard is conducting a study that will overlay historical ship traffic onto existing launch trajectories. Because the shipping industry wants consistent and predictable routes, this could help solve problems before they arise.

“The reality is that right now it’s become one of our biggest and most important issues for the Coast Guard – this emergence of the spacecraft support team,” he said. declared.

Historically, the Coast Guard has supported space shuttle launches, which included intervals of several months between flights. Now a mix of private and public missions flying everything from Martian landers to Starlink internet satellites means more than 50 launches a year – and that’s not including other operations that need to be supervised like booster recoveries on drones. , emergency splashes during crew launches, and more.

“The pace of change and innovation is extremely high. One of the things I ask of the industry, especially when it comes to commerce, is to help us understand the vision. federal regulator, we’re trying to move as fast as the industry, but if it’s something new today that we’re going to implement on Saturday, that’s going to be a challenge,” he said. .

Next SpaceX launch

Vlaun’s Saturday example was actually based on reality: SpaceX recently informed the Coast Guard that its next launch, scheduled for the afternoon of Saturday May 14, would include a unique southeast trajectory. It’s not totally different from previous missions that skirted the state’s coast, but just enough to warrant a few changes on its part.

“We just had a whole new trajectory that we never heard of yesterday that (SpaceX) wants to do on Saturday,” he said. “We no longer have six months or a year’s notice to try to figure these things out.”

If on schedule, a 230-foot Falcon 9 rocket will launch the company’s next batch of Starlink internet satellites that day from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center. The weather for liftoff, set between 4:28 p.m. and 4:49 p.m. EDT, was last calculated by Space Force at 70% “go.”

After the southeast launch, a drone ship will host the rocket recovery attempt.

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Contact Emre Kelly at [email protected] or 321-242-3715. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and instagram to @EmreKelly.

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Launch Saturday May 14

  • Rocket: SpaceX Falcon 9
  • Mission: 47th Starlink Launch
  • Launch time: between 4:28 p.m. and 4:49 p.m. EDT
  • Launch Pad: 39A at Kennedy Space Center
  • Trajectory: Southeast
  • Landing: drone ship
  • Weather: 70% “leave”

To visit at 3 p.m. EDT on Saturday, May 14 for real-time updates and a video of the launch.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sits on Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center with the company's 45th dedicated Starlink mission Friday, May 6, 2022.

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