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Snooping on Planes from Space!

Hot on the heels of recent NSA revelations, the European Space Agency announced today[1] that they’ve put a satellite, Proba-V, in orbit that can track airplane flights from outer space. Unlike the NSA snooping, however, the plane tracking is voluntary, (for the moment), and welcomed.


Proba-V was launched recently and rocketed into orbit inside the same vehicle that carried the Estonian satellite ESTCUBE-1[2]. Proba’s main mission is to track vegetation growth on the planet.  The satellite’s designers provided room for a few extra experiments however. One of the extra experiments was designed to determine if ADS-B[3] signals can be detected from outer space. ADS-B is a radio based vehicle tracking system that is similar to a system developed by the United States Navy and used by ham radio operators known as APRS. Once Proba-V reached a stable orbit, the onboard ADS-B receiver started up, and soon thereafter signals from earthbound planes were detected.

Much like APRS, ADS-B transmitters aboard airplanes broadcast data packets that contain the plane’s location and other pertinent information. The APRS system, relies on automatic radio repeaters to route the data packets into a system of computer servers run by volunteers. Once in the system, the data can be utilized to track the transmitting vehicles. For an example of APRS in action, go to, and/or watch the video below of the flight of OH3GMZ-9 path over Helsinki recorded earlier this morning.

Far from being volunteer based, ADS-B is being adopted as an enhancement to the existing air traffic control system and should prove to be more efficient and precise.  In the United States, the majority of planes are required to carry an ADS-B transmitter by the year 2020.

ADS-B adds an inbound channel that APRS doesn’t have. ‘ADS-B in’ users can receive the packets of other nearby aircraft, as well as direct communications.  With the new results from Proba-V, it looks like ADS-B will also be capable of providing space monitored search and rescue data for downed planes that are out of the range of traditional terrestrial radio receiver antennas.

1. Proba-V aircraft tracking announcement

2. ESTCube-1

3. ADS-B on Wikipedia


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