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Fact Sheet – What is the Space Data Integrator (SDI)?

For Immediate Release

June 4, 2019
Contact: Eva Ngai
Phone: 202-267-8001/Email:

The SDI is a technology that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is developing to merge air traffic control with rocket launches and spacecraft reentries. Today, launch and reentry operators monitor data on the status of their missions and vehicles in real time. However, current FAA air traffic systems cannot track most launch and reentry vehicles. To monitor a mission, a team of FAA air-traffic and aerospace experts known as the Joint Space Operations Group (JSpOG) gathers operational data it receives via email and over telephone lines, copies it on paper, and sends the data on the FAA communications tools to adapt airspace usage with incoming and outgoing operations.

The purpose of the Space Data Integrator (SDI) program is to provide initial integration of commercial space data into the NAS.  SDI will receive and distribute launch and reentry data in a manner that will allow it to integrate with air traffic control systems, and to be considered with other NAS data, creating a common operating picture designed to promote air travel safety.  This integration of data will provide the FAA with opportunities to reduce the amount of airspace that requires closing in advance of a launch or reentry operations to effectively respond to contingencies in a timelier manner during launch or reentry operations, and to quickly release closed airspace back to operations.  The SDI will allow the FAA to ensure safety as it keeps pace with the increasing frequency and complexity of commercial launch and reentry operations.  Initial NAS integration is anticipated with the FAA’s Traffic Flow Management System (TFMS).

space data integration data

How Does SDI Work?
The SDI is designed to accept launch and reentry vehicle status data gathered via telemetry, radar, and other sensors. The SDI will receive the data, process it, display it, and distribute it to tools that perform real-time computations to determine the location, extent and duration of closed airspace to airspace that the vehicle will effect. With the SDI, the FAA will begin to safely reduce the extent and duration of closed airspace to other National Airspace System (NAS) users in advance of the mission, respond effectively to contingencies, and speed up providing airspace back to the system for the traveling public. 

The History of SDI
The SDI project began late in 2014. Yet, the need for having such a system was recognized much earlier. The SDI is based on years of experience that the FAA gathered while working with NASA on Space Shuttle landings and a specific event — the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy.

The FAA had difficulty responding to the challenge of ensuring aircraft avoided the falling debris from the Columbia Space Shuttle. The FAA worked with NASA engineers at the Johnson Space Center to monitor the shuttle as it reentered over the NAS during all 22 missions after Columbia. Lessons learned from that activity pointed to the need for an FAA capability to increase its air traffic control situational awareness during launch and reentry. In addition the FAA found the need to:

  • More accurately model a launch/reentry vehicle failure;
  • Better identify potentially affected airspace;
  • Assess impacts on air traffic; and
  • Quickly distribute information.

The SDI is a key part of the FAA Administrator’s Strategic Initiative for integrating new entrants into the NAS. In 2015, the FAA developed a prototype at a lab at the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, NJ. The prototype utilizes a unique networking approach within the agency that allows the primary users at the JSpOG located at the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center to use the prototype in “shadow” mode during actual space-related operations. The Space Exploration (SpaceX) Technologies Corp. volunteered to be the first industry partner to share data from its Dragon spacecraft vehicles during reentries from the International Space Station. Beginning with the Crew Resupply Services (CRS)-8 mission in 2016, SpaceX has provided live data from its Dragon spacecraft during every reentry, helping the FAA identify and verify its requirements using the prototype. 

The Future of SDI
The FAA is currently working the first phase of SDI through its Acquisition Management System process. The FAA is assessing strategies to accelerate the deployment of an initial operating capability. 

The commercial space transportation company Blue Origin is the FAA’s newest partner. The FAA began exercising the SDI prototype in shadow mode at a Blue Origin launch of their New Shepard rocket in July 2018 from its West Texas Launch Site. This provided the FAA with the first opportunity to exercise the system for a suborbital launch. 

Phase 2 of the project is now also underway. It focuses on the development of an improved, purpose-built Aircraft Hazard Area (AHA) generator. AHAs identify the airspace that could potentially contain falling debris from a launch or reentry vehicle that would be hazardous to aircraft. Currently, the FAA uses an analytical tool to compute AHAs in real time, and it takes several minutes for the software to complete the computation. Because of this, the FAA must close a significant amount of airspace to other users during launch and reentry operations. The improved AHA Generator will be capable of computing an AHA in two seconds or less. It will provide additional time for air traffic controllers to respond to differing scenarios and allow the FAA to implement airspace closures much more dynamically. As the location and extent of hazard areas change over the course of a mission, the FAA will be able to activate and deactivate airspace accordingly.

The FAA is also currently partnering with the U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, and intends to deploy an improved AHA Generator prototype.

What Are the Costs to Launch and Reentry Associated With SDI?
The SDI uses data that launch and reentry operator are already gathering and monitoring for mission success purposes. There will be some costs associated with routing that data to the FAA, but it will be minimal and the FAA’s experience in working with SpaceX and Blue Origin have proven that to be accurate. 

Beyond SDI
The next step is to develop decision support systems and improved mission planning tools. If a vehicle fails during a mission, particularly a launch to orbit or a reentry from orbit, the corresponding AHA could be rather large, extending across multiple air traffic facility boundaries and affecting a large number of aircraft within and approaching the area.  Decision support will help those in the FAA working in the air traffic system employ risk based decision making (also a Strategic Initiative) in identifying which aircraft need to be addressed and how best to address them. Airspace system modernization technologies like the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B)Data Communications, and other new flight deck technologies in development will be leveraged to expedite data and distribution of information.

space data integration table

Now that the first phase of the SDI is progressing through the FAA’s acquisition processes, the FAA transitioned the program management responsibilities from FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation to the agency’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO). This allows for better integration of the capabilities with NAS systems as well as opportunities for air traffic personnel to get an understanding of the data SDI can offer in airspace management.

Improved mission planning will allow launch and reentry operators to consider the effect of their operations on the NAS as launch and reentry operators design their missions. Currently, the system’s ability to accommodate a space-related mission is not considered until late in the licensing process, after the safety analyses have been completed and many other steps have been taken. In the future, mission designs will consider safety and NAS efficiency and capacity in parallel, considering system constraints in a manner that optimizes mission plans based on these and other factors. Improved mission planning, combined with more dynamic airspace management will increase opportunities for NAS access. The FAA is currently assessing several technologies for incorporation into a Mission Planning Portal prototype.



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