New satellite network will make it impossible for a commercial airplane to vanish

Satellite network to track planes in real time

For the first time, a new network of satellites will soon be able to track all commercial airplanes in real time, anywhere on the planet. Currently, planes are largely tracked by radar on the ground, which doesn't work over much of the world's oceans.

The final 10 satellites were launched Friday to wrap up the $3 billion effort to replace 66 aging communication satellites, reports CBS News' Kris Van Cleave, who got an early look at the new technology.

On any given day, 43,000 planes are in the sky in America alone. When these planes take off, they are tracked by radar and are equipped with a GPS transponder. All commercial flights operating in the U.S. and Europe have to have them by 2020. It's that transponder that talks to these new satellites, making it possible to know exactly where more than 10,000 flights currently flying are.

Tucked inside the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that was blasted into space on Friday are 10 advanced Iridium Communications satellites, each the size of a Mini Cooper. Once active, they'll power satellite phone communications, space-based broadband and carry a device which will solve an issue that's plagued aviation for decades.

"Seventy percent of the world's airspace has no surveillance. Aircraft fly over the oceans and report back their positions to air traffic control every 10 to 15 minutes at best and in between those periods, no one knows where they are," said Aireon CEO Don Thoma.
 
Aireon, based in McLean, Virginia, was developing the technology to change that even before Mayalasia Airlines flight MH370 vanished over the Indian Ocean in March 2014. But a Boeing 777 with 239 aboard disappearing was a wake-up call, prompting years of safety experts demanding change.

"I can find my kids by pinging their iPhone. We shouldn't have aircraft that disappear anywhere in the world today," former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Debbie Herman said back in 2016.

To make that happen, the Aireon technology is hitching a ride to space as part of the largest technology swap the universe has ever seen. Iridium is replacing its existing constellation of 66 satellites and 9 spares orbiting the earth built and launched in the mid-90s.

Walt Everetts help designed the first generation of Iridium satellites, naming two of them after his sons Nicholas and Andrew. He'll be in the company's command center outside Washington, D.C. as his team maneuvers the new satellites into place, simultaneously powering on the new and devastating old. The legacy satellites will then be moved out of orbit where they'll burn up in the earth's atmosphere.

"It's kind of like changing a tire on a bus going 17,000 miles per hour," said Walt Everetts, vice president of satellite operations for Iridium. "With these new satellites that we're putting up, we have more capacity, more processing capability, more memory … so we are taking an old flip phone and upgrading it into a smartphone."
 
While not fully complete, the updated network circling the globe 485 miles overhead is already tracking planes. Aireon was able to instantly confirm the last known location of Lion Air Flight 610, the Boeing 737 Max that crashed in the Java Sea last October.

"With the Iridium-Aireon system, every airplane is in reach of an air traffic controller … so no matter what happened to that airplane we would know within seconds of where that airplane was," Iridium CEO Matt Desch said.

The technology may also make it possible for air traffic controllers to allow more flights to be in the air at the same time on busy routes over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It could also allow for more direct flight paths, which means more flights, the potential for fewer delays, and shorter flights to places like Europe.