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Malaysia Airlines will be first to use new satellite-based airplane tracking system

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The service offers minute-by-minute tracking even over remote regions

Search For Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Suspended Photo by Rahman Roslan/Getty Images

Three years ago, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared from radar somewhere above the Indian Ocean with 239 people on board. Today, the airline announced it is the first to sign up to a new service that will track its airplanes anywhere in the world using orbiting satellites. The company’s planes will be tracked minute-by-minute using the new system, which boasts complete worldwide coverage, even over “ocean, polar, and remote regions.”

As reported by Bloomberg, the satellite-tracking system is operated by a trio of companies: Aireon, SITAONAIR, and FlightAware. It uses a constellation of 72 communication satellites operated by US firm Iridium (whose main business is selling satellite phones connected to its network). The flights will be tracked using an industry-wide standard known as “automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast” or ADS-B, which usually shares data on flight location via ground-based receivers. Using satellites will offer more comprehensive coverage in remote regions, says the airline.

“Real-time global aircraft tracking has long been a goal of the aviation community,” said Malaysia Airlines chief operating officer Captain Izham Ismail in a press statement. “We are proud to be the first airline to adopt this solution using space-based ADS-B data.”

But although using satellites to track aircraft should offer Malaysia Airlines more comprehensive coverage, it’s not clear if this system would have allowed the company to track flight MH370. The airplane’s location transmitter stopped communicating with ground stations, and it’s not known if the unit malfunctioned or was intentionally turned off. Either way, it would not have been visible to satellites.

Although debris from MH370 has been found washed up on the shores of Africa, the location of the main body of the aircraft remains unknown. It’s assumed the plane crashed somewhere in the ocean.