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Space Radio Developed For NASA Could Change Flight Tracking Worldwide

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A reconfigurable radio developed for NASA could allow tracking planes permanently, through a space-based tracking system. To send larger quantities of data faster, NASA engineers designed higher-frequency radios that can be programmed from a distance through software updates.

The powerful radio communications network designed by NASA allows a series of operations and data transmissions, from Pluto images to tweets from the crew on the International Space Station. However, this type of informational transfer could be employed in tracking flights worldwide.

Radio-Based Flight Tracking

Engineers used to be reluctant when it came to designing reconfigurable devices for space, as it is highly complicated to test functions without entirely knowing how they will be employed. But recently NASA has started to finance research on reconfigurable devices, developing a new, reconfigurable, and higher-bandwidth radio. The project was created in collaboration with Palm Bay, Harris Corporation from Florida.

The new device stands out because of its flexibility. Both its software and hardware were designed to be fully reconfigurable, so that the company could redesign it to correspond to any potential needs of its customers, in a cost and time-efficient manner.

"A reconfigurable radio lets engineers change how the radio works throughout the life of the mission, if requirements change or when the environment does," noted Thomas Kacpura, Advanced Communications Program manager at NASA's Glenn Research Center.

One of the biggest contracts of this new, revolutionizing idea, is with Aireon LLC, a joint venture that will employ the technology in what will be the first space-based worldwide control system of the air traffic.

Aireon LLC has engaged Harris to develop a payload for new Iridium Communications Inc satellites. During the last 20 years, Iridium has operated a wide array of satellites in low-Earth orbit, which allows a series of data transmissions, such as sending data from the most remote regions of the world or making phone calls. The twist of this type of satellites is that all cross-linked orbiters can communicate with the others at any given time, which means that there is always full worldwide coverage.

The Iridium NEXT constellation of satellites, including Harris AppSTAR radio has a higher bandwidth and better capacities, which will allow radio to be employed in the first space-based control system of the air traffic.

Making History With The New Flight Monitoring System

For decades, the monitoring system of airplanes has consisted of radar surveillance through land-based radar station. A huge issue of this means of controlling the air flights was not being able to monitor the entire network all the time. Over oceans, air traffic controllers are unable to transmit real-time information, which is why pilots had to work on very detailed flight plans that they had to respect. The system constricted the pilots when it came to prescribed lanes and the altitudes they were allowed to fly within, to avoid collisions.

Unlike the previous system, the new, radio-based one can receive signals from airplane transceivers, as a result of which the flight's location, number, heading, and other details are instantly sent out. The new technology will make scheduling and monitoring flights easier than ever before.

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