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Rocket Lab debuts fully autonomous flight termination system

Stephen Kuper

Rocket Lab has successfully flown a fully autonomous flight termination system (AFTS) for the first time on the company’s Electron launch vehicle.

Rocket Lab debuts fully autonomous flight termination system
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The AFTS flown on the company’s most recent mission, ‘Running Out Of Fingers’, makes Rocket Lab one of only three US launch companies to fly with an autonomous system.

AFTS is a GPS-aided, computer-controlled system designed to terminate an off-nominal flight, replacing traditional human-in-the-loop monitoring systems. AFTS is crucial to increasing launch frequency and providing responsive launch capability, while maintaining the highest industry safety standards.

The AFTS reduces the turnaround time between missions and provides greater schedule control by eliminating reliance on ground-assets and human flight termination operators.

Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck welcomed the milestone achievement, saying, "The AFTS is yet another way Rocket Lab is innovating to increase the pace of launch and support responsive launch capability for small satellites.

‘Running Out Of Fingers’ hosted the first fully autonomous system on Electron. The launch followed four ‘shadow’ flights where the AFTS unit was flown on the vehicle for testing while traditional ground-based flight termination infrastructure remained in place.

With the first fully autonomous mission now complete, all future Electron missions from Launch Complexes 1 and 2 will fly with the AFTS.

"As we move to an autonomous system, I’d like to thank the dedicated teams from White Sands Missile Range and Alaska Aerospace Corporation, who have provided ground-based flight termination system support for Electron missions since our first launch in 2017. Their support has ensured the safety of every Electron mission and they have contributed to our record of mission success for customers," Beck added. 

Flight termination systems are a vital part of launch operations. Traditionally, flight termination infrastructure is a ground-based system that involves a human making the decision to terminate a mission in the event of a launch vehicle straying from a pre-determined flight path.

Naomi Altman, Rocket Lab’s avionics manager and project lead for the AFTS program, explained, "I’m immensely proud of the team here at Rocket Lab that has made AFTS on Electron a reality. For AFTS to be part of Electron’s 10th launch was the cherry on top of a monumental year for the whole team."

By contrast, the AFTS is an independent, self-contained subsystem mounted onboard the Electron launch vehicle. It eliminates the need for a ground-based infrastructure by moving the flight termination function to the launch vehicle.

"Reaching this milestone is also testament to the ongoing support of government agencies and contractors who worked closely with us to bring the AFTS online," Altman said. 

The system makes flight termination decisions autonomously by using redundant computers that track the launch vehicle using Global Positioning System and onboard sensors, combined with configurable software-based rules, that identify where the rocket can safely fly.

If a rocket goes off course the AFTS will issue a command to terminate the flight by shutting down the engines.

The AFTS also delivers faster response times and improved monitoring as the launch vehicle travels downrange, providing over-the-horizon tracking capabilities that are not limited by line-of-sight tracking such as that required by ground-based instrumentation at the launch site.

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