Proba-V Satellite Monitors Aircraft Traffic From Orbit
June 13, 2013

Proba-V Becomes Air Traffic Monitor From Space

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

The European Space Agency's (ESA) Proba-V has become the first satellite to pick up aircraft tracking signals.

Proba-V's new feature allows air traffic controllers to follow aircraft in flight across the globe from space.

“We have succeeded in proving that these relatively low-powered air traffic control signals can indeed be detected from space as they are, without any need for upgraded aircraft equipment,” explained Toni Delovski of the DLR German Aerospace Center, overseeing the experiment. “Now we want to go on and check how many aircraft we can actually observe in practice, and which types — different sized aircraft being assigned systems with differing signal strengths.

He said this research would be paving the way for operational space-based aircraft monitoring systems in the future.

The ESA spacecraft first launched on May 7 with the goal to map vegetation growth. However, the satellite also doubles as a miniature research lab, testing a number of other technologies due to its "guest payload" space. The Automatic Dependent Broadcast - Surveillance (ADS-B) is one of the experiments in this guest payload spot.

ADS-B is able to track signals regularly being broadcast from aircraft, giving flight information like speed, position and altitude. All aircraft entering European airspace are envisaged to carry ADS-B eventually. These systems are currently deployed as an add-on to ground-based radar monitoring for air traffic management.

“However, for most areas of the world, in particular oceans and remote regions, installing air traffic infrastructure based on radars or ADS-B stations is not economically or technically feasible,” Delovski added. “Instead, space-based ADS-B monitoring holds a lot of potential in terms of security and safety — including search and rescue for airspace not covered by ground-based surveillance. Filling in these gaps has obvious value."

He said ADS-B may allow aircraft to traverse regions with decreased separation between them and on more efficient routes, which would help boost overall traffic capacity while cutting fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.

“This is another success for ESA´s Proba series, dedicated to providing early flight opportunities to promising European technologies,” said Frédéric Teston, overseeing the Proba series of satellites as part of ESA´s Technology Flight Opportunities Program.

Other guest payloads aboard Proba-V include a pair of novel space-radiation detectors, a radio amplifier using the high-performance gallium nitride semiconductor, and lightweight high-capacity optical fiber connectors. The spacecraft is just the latest addition to the Proba family of small, low-cost space missions.

ESA's Proba-3 mission is going to become one of the first missions in which two spacecraft fly through space as a single unit, creating an enormous space telescope. Scientists hope to use the synchronized satellites to examine the sun's corona in detail. One satellite will be blocking the Sun to create an artificial solar eclipse so the other can collect data.