NASA's space radio system can track flights worldwide

NASA's space radio system can track flights worldwide

NASA's space radio system can track flights worldwide

NASA's new space-based radio system can track aircraft in real time across the globe, an advance that could make air travel safer and ensure that flights can be quickly located in case of mishaps.

NASA's powerful radio communications network allows us to receive data such as pictures of cryovolcanoes on Pluto - or tweets from astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

However, to send larger quantities of data back and forth faster, NASA engineers wanted higher-frequency radios that can be reprogrammed from a distance using software updates. "A reconfigurable radio lets engineers change how the radio works throughout the life of any space mission," said Thomas Kacpura, Advanced Communications Programme manager at NASA's Glenn Research Centre in the US.

"It can also be upgraded to work better with future missions or to enhance performance, just by adding new software," said Kacpura.

NASA worked with US-based technology company Harris Corporation to design and develop a new reconfigurable, higher-bandwidth radio. The radios will be used to create the first space-based global air traffic control system.

For decades, airplanes have relied on radar surveillance via land-based radar stations. That is left huge gaps - particularly over oceans - where air traffic controllers have no real-time information.

To compensate, pilots file detailed flight plans and are required to remain within prescribed lanes at different altitudes so air traffic controllers can estimate where they are and work to ensure there are no mid-air collisions.

However, that may change when a constellation of 66 satellites goes into orbit equipped with the new radios.

The radios are programmed to receive signals from new airplane transceivers called ADS-B, which automatically send out a flight's number, location, heading and other details. "Within seconds you can keep track of all the aircraft in the world," said Harris systems engineer Jeff Anderson.

With real-time global tracking, planes can fly with less space between them and take more direct routes. "It tremendously improves public safety and potentially saves a lot of fuel costs, because you no longer have to remain in the particular airline traffic lanes," Anderson said.

If something goes wrong, search and rescue teams will have detailed information on where the plane was last spotted. The system may also be used to similarly track ships.