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NASA Lewis Launch Collision Probability Model Developed and AnalyzedThere are nearly 10,000 tracked objects orbiting the earth. These objects encompass manned objects, active and decommissioned satellites, spent rocket bodies, and debris. They range from a few centimeters across to the size of the MIR space station. Anytime a new satellite is launched, the launch vehicle with its payload attached passes through an area of space in which these objects orbit. Although the population density of these objects is low, there always is a small but finite probability of collision between the launch vehicle and one or more of these space objects. Even though the probability of collision is very low, for some payloads even this small risk is unacceptable. To mitigate the small risk of collision associated with launching at an arbitrary time within the daily launch window, NASA performs a prelaunch mission assurance Collision Avoidance Analysis (or COLA). For the COLA of the Cassini spacecraft, the NASA Lewis Research Center conducted an in-house development and analysis of a model for launch collision probability. The model allows a minimum clearance criteria to be used with the COLA analysis to ensure an acceptably low probability of collision. If, for any given liftoff time, the nominal launch vehicle trajectory would pass a space object with less than the minimum required clearance, launch would not be attempted at that time. The model assumes that the nominal positions of the orbiting objects and of the launch vehicle can be predicted as a function of time, and therefore, that any tracked object that comes within close proximity of the launch vehicle can be identified. For any such pair, these nominal positions can be used to calculate a nominal miss distance. The actual miss distances may differ substantially from the nominal miss distance, due, in part, to the statistical uncertainty of the knowledge of the objects positions. The model further assumes that these position uncertainties can be described with position covariance matrices. With these, and some additional simplifying assumptions, a closed-form solution for the probability of collision is obtained. This solution provides clear insights into how each of the independent parameters affects the probability of collision. It shows that for a given maximum probability of collision and prior knowledge of the objects position uncertainties and sizes, only knowledge of the nominal closest approach distance is required to make the launch/no launch decision. The model was completed and used for the mission assurance COLA analysis for the Cassini spacecraft, which was launched on a Titan IV/Centaur rocket on October 15, 1997. Although the model was specifically developed for the Cassini mission, it is clearly applicable for other launches as well. The effect of COLA closures on the launch window is shown. The bar represents the entire 140-min launch window on October 15, 1997; the blackened areas represent the loss of launch opportunities due to the potential for a collision with an orbiting object.
Document ID
Document Type
Bollenbacher, Gary (NASA Lewis Research Center Cleveland, OH, United States)
Guptill, James D (NASA Lewis Research Center Cleveland, OH, United States)
Date Acquired
August 23, 2013
Publication Date
April 1, 1999
Publication Information
Publication: Research and Technology 1998
Subject Category
Launch Vehicles and Launch Operations
Distribution Limits
Work of the US Gov. Public Use Permitted.

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IDRelationTitle19990052647Analytic PrimaryResearch and Technology, 1998
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