On Jan. 24, 2023, Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket successfully lifted off from Wallops flight facility in Virginia. This is the first Electron launch from Wallops and the first-ever use of the jointly-developed Pegasus automated flight termination system derived from the NASA Autonomous Flight Termination Unit (NAFTU).
NAFTU is a revolutionary flight safety system that will be available to all US launch providers to ensure public safety during launch operations. Rocket Lab is the first to integrate the system with its launch vehicle but 17 other companies have requested the software through the NASA Technology Transfer Program.
In January 2022, NASA officially released the NAFTU software code to the launch industry.
Its development began in 2020 thanks to a collaboration between Wallops Flight Facility, NASA Headquarters, the US Air Force, the US Space Force (USSF), and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The NAFTU system is a more complex version of the Automated Flight Safety System (AFSS), it’s designed to be customizable and it can support a larger variety of launch vehicles.
We’re ticking off some big firsts for Electron this week:— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) December 13, 2022
✅ First mission from U.S. soil
✅ First mission for @hawkeye360
✅ First mission with an Autonomous Flight Termination System at Wallops
Virginia Is For Launch Lovers flying NET Dec 15. Stay tuned for weather updates pic.twitter.com/P7Dlq0X01h
“In taking NAFTU across the finish line, NASA has delivered an autonomous flight termination system like no other in operation today filling a critical gap in modernizing our nation’s launch ranges.”—Dave Pierce, NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility Director
The importance of AFSS / AFTS
The main goal of an autonomous flight safety system (AFSS) is to provide wider launch windows and smaller downrange safety corridors, reducing the need for ground-based systems. These benefits provide a reduction of the overall operations and maintenance costs for the launch providers.
In fact, launches without an automated flight system rely on range safety officers to monitor all stages of rockets’ flight using ground-based instruments. If the rocket leaves the planned trajectory, the range safety officers give the command to terminate the flight.
An autonomous system compensates for human reaction time and mitigates the growth of ground-based assets required for launch.
A traditional Flight Termination System (FTS) tracks launch vehicles sending data between the vehicle and the ground. This system requires complex ground equipment such as Command Transmitters, Telemetry Receivers, Radars, and a Mission Flight Control (MFC). This causes downtime to perform system maintenance and a lengthening of the timeline.
The Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS) is an independent, self-contained subsystem mounted onboard a launch vehicle. AFTS autonomously makes flight termination/destruct decisions using data from GPS and Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) navigation sensors.
With AFTS there is no need for all ground-based instruments, reducing costs and maintenance periods.