Even civilians are familiar with the classic “blip” on the screen of traditional radar tracking systems used in the military. However, the U.S. Air Force recently took a step toward making it a thing of the past. On May 16, a rocket launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida was tracked via GPS technology rather than radar.
Delta IV went into flight equipped with a special avionics system allowing GPS navigational data to be transmitted to ground-based controllers. The rocket’s payload was actually a satellite being sent up to bolster the Global Positioning System. This constellation of Air Force-operated navigational satellites provides data for both the military and the civilian public.
For several decades, rockets have featured C-band transponders to enable radar to lock on to their position for tracking. Moving to GPS navigation will provide a much-needed upgrade while also reducing costs. The ground infrastructure needed for radar tracking at Cape Canaveral and Vandenburg Air Force Base in California, the two main rocket launching facilities, will no longer be required.
Use of GPS can help prevent costly delays in scheduling. Thanks to outdated technology, current ground tracking systems are subject to hiccups that can keep flights grounded even when all other conditions are “go”. In late March, two NASA flights at Cape Canaveral were delayed for more than two weeks when Air-Force owned radar caught fire and they had to locate a backup.
GPS tracking is safer and more accurate as well. Part of its use involves range safety functions, which protect the public in case a vehicle should stray off course. More precise data means more timely deployment of the on-board flight termination system if an emergency arises.
The next step is to develop autonomous on-board safety systems, where the vehicle itself will deploy the flight termination action rather than relying on ground personnel. In November 2013 an Air Force Minotaur was the first of what’s expected to be several test flights for this technology.
It’s hoped that eventually all launch range infrastructure will be able to be located on rockets. With the elimination of the extensive network of ground radar stations, a rocket would be able to be launched from virtually any location in the world.
Although you may not be launching and tracking rockets, our GPS vehicle tracking solutions may be the perfect earth-bound services you need for your fleet.