Aireon Launch Begins New Era for Satellite-Based Aircraft Surveillance

A Falcon 9 rocket launched Saturday carried the first 10 Iridium Next satellites into low-Earth orbit. SpaceX

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Saturday placed the first 10 Iridium Next satellites into low-Earth orbit, each with an Aerion cargo package carrying an ADS-B receiver.

The launch represents the first successful effort in space to create Aireon’s global ADS-B-based aircraft-tracking system expected to be operational by the second quarter of 2018.

Aireon, a partnership created in 2011 between air navigation service providers (ANSP) NavCanada, ENAV, the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) and Naviair, as well as Iridium, says nearly 70 percent of the Earth today is not covered by any form of aircraft surveillance system. This lack of tracking capabilities over vast regions of the world is considered a crucial factor in the world's inability to locate the remains of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a Boeing 777 that disappeared in southeast Asia nearly three years ago. Coincidentally, the search for MH370 was today called off.

Over the next 18 months, an additional 71 ADS-B-equipped satellites will be launched via six more SpaceX flights to create Aireon’s tracking network. Once Aireon’s system goes live, 66 satellites will be used to provide worldwide tracking coverage, with 15 additional satellites parked in space approximately 485 miles above the Earth serving as backups.

Once all 81 satellites have taken orbit, each will undergo extensive testing by Iridium before operations begin. After approximately 40 to 60 days, Iridium will hand off the ADS-B payloads to Aireon for verification of on-orbit technical specifications. Aireon will then conduct 60 days of rigorous independent testing and validation of the space-based ADS-B system.

As part of the testing and validation process, the ADS-B receivers, manufactured by Harris Corporation, will begin providing air traffic surveillance data through the Aireon network to Service Delivery Points (SDPs) for Aireon’s partner ANSPs, as well as to the FAA at the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Rob MarkAuthor
Rob Mark is an award-winning journalist, business jet pilot, flight instructor, and blogger.

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