Lockheed Martin has demonstrated the tracking of a satellite launch using airborne instrumentation as a step towards a space-based launch range. The proof-of-concept trial involved tracking the 18 May Boeing Delta II launch of NASA's Gravity Probe B from Vandenberg, California using instrumentation carried on an aircraft acting as a surrogate for an unmanned air vehicle.


The USA wants to evolve towards a space-based range for space flights and missile tests to eliminate the cost of maintaining fixed telemetry-tracking stations around the world. As a "stepping stone", Lockheed Martin proposes using UAVs to track launches from 70,000ft (21,000m) using a range instrumentation payload.


"The most significant advantage is mobility," says Dave Myers, director business development for Lockheed Martin spaceport programmes. "We can position anywhere on Earth, set up in minimum time and stay up through the launch window." High-altitude airships that can stay aloft for months are potential carriers of the payload.


For the proof-of-concept test, sponsored by the California Space Authority, the payload was carried to 16,000ft on a manned UAV surrogate operated by the Center for Interdisciplinary Remotely Piloted Aircraft Studies. Controlled from the ground, the airborne instrumentation tracked, recorded and relayed S-band telemetry from the Delta from before lift-off to about 135km (85 miles) downrange, says Myers.


"We tracked the launch vehicle to the accuracy required for range safety," Myers says. No further tests are planned but, if funding can be secured, Lockheed Martin wants to develop the payload to include extreme-resolution video, inferometric tracking and command-destruct capability. "There is a lot of interest. I believe we will find funding in the near term," says Myers.



Source: Flight International