STARS in Their Eyes

by Allison Barker
posted March 29, 2012

The STARS lab in El Segundo is a center of activity during launch exercises and actual launches. Photo: Eric Hamburg

In the last few years an unexpected on-screen star has emerged at Aerospace. This looker has been featured in a major motion picture, made appearances on the evening news and morning talk shows, and been in several documentaries. This screen personality is none other than the STARS lab.

STARS—spacelift telemetry acquisition and reporting system—is the lab space in A1 that looks much like a mission control center. It is the center of action for all launch operations supported by Aerospace. About 80 Aerospace analysts are on console in the STARS lab during a typical launch operation. STARS acquires and processes telemetry — transmitted data — which gives these analysts the ability to monitor the health of the vehicle and assist in anomaly resolution.

“STARS is closely integrated into the launch mission assurance process,” explains former STARS director Bruce Mau. “Launch vehicle data is processed and stored into the Corporate Telemetry Database (CTD) starting when a launch vehicle reaches the launch site and begins preparing for launch. As the vehicle undergoes system testing at the launch site, data from subsystem tests are processed into the CTD so that engineers can validate that the systems are behaving as they should. Data from prior vehicles is used to compare performance against nominal behavior. After launch, a post-flight analysis is performed to identify any systems or components that did not perform as expected; these issues must be addressed with respect to how they apply to subsequent launch vehicles.”

STARS is a very busy place. During fiscal year 2011, the facility supported 65 launch operations, including integrated crew exercises, wet dress rehearsals, integrated system tests, and launches. In April of 2010, STARS supported a record two launches in the same day. The first was a Minotaur IV rocket that lifted off from Vandenberg with HTV-2A; 52 minutes later an Atlas V was launched from Cape Canaveral with the first Orbital Test Vehicle aboard.

Though the STARS lab looks something like a movie set, during an operation serious work takes place.

“During the count it can be very tense, particularly if we are working an anomaly,” Jonathan Binkley, systems director, STARS, Launch Systems Engineering, says of the atmosphere in the lab during a launch. “During the actual launch folks are in awe, but congratulations are delayed until after the spacecraft has been placed in the correct orbit. After that … relief and high fives.”

During the launch window, STARS employees play an active role in the success of the launch.

Gregory Furumoto is “on console” during a STARS activity. Photo: Eric Hamburg

“The individuals working the issues are under pressure to understand the issue, review the vehicle data that are causing the concern, and independently recommend the way forward,” Mau says. “There is a finite amount of time to make a decision (specifically, the launch window), and the consequences of that decision are significant: mission success, of course, is paramount, but a decision to not launch can be very costly as well.”

During the recent Atlas V MUOS launch, an Aerospace assessment indicated low flight control margins due to extreme upper atmospheric winds. Based on this analysis the launch was scrubbed. MUOS was later launched successfully.

In recent years, STARS has been more than just a lab that helps to support launches. The spectacular facility is a great visual ambassador for the company. Last fall, local news media used STARS for the backdrop of their coverage of the uncontrolled reentry of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite. In 2008, the movie Race to Witch Mountain filmed a scene in the old STARS lab located in A3. The facility has also been used as a backdrop for documentaries and educational videos.

“While the STARS facility is impressive, its significant contribution is mainly due to the knowledgeable and dedicated analysts,” Binkley says.

The role that STARS plays at Aerospace continues to evolve.

The STARS lab will support the upcoming NROL-25 launch on Thursday, March 29. Employees can view the launch via webcast.