A Constellation of Satellites Will Monitor Flights in Real-Time


A constellation of satellites will keep a close watch of airborne planes.
Photo: ESA

Flight tracking data may soon come from space with the design of a new aviation surveillance system that will rely on satellites in Earth orbit.

The European Space Agency (ESA) announced a new agreement with space-based data company Spire Global to provide real-time surveillance of flights using a constellation of satellites. The civilian aviation surveillance system, named Eurialo, will be able to locate the radio frequency signals of a plane and determine its exact position.

Today, the positions of planes are recorded by radar that moves through airspace and bounces off objects that it encounters. The distance between the source of the wave to the impact is measured, and that determines the position of the objects. That system has its shortcomings, however, as mountains, tall buildings, or large bodies of water could stand in the way and hinder a receiver’s ability to obtain the signal.

Surveillance systems of planes also rely on self-reported positions of aircraft from the Global Navigation Satellite System, according to ESA.

The new system, however, is meant to be a more reliable way to determine the exact location of planes as a way to complement the already existing communication, navigation, and surveillance infrastructure, as well as align with the management of air traffic. Eurialo will be able to “track a plane in real-time anywhere in the world from take-off to landing,” ESA wrote.

Spire will provide a preliminary design for the satellite constellation, and then deploy and operate a test mission to see how it performs. “Space-based aircraft tracking and geolocation is the future of air traffic management to ensure safe, secure and sustainable air travel at a global scale,” Peter Platzer, chief executive officer at Spire Global, said in a statement.

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