How satellites helped 345,000 people track Nancy Pelosi’s historic flight to Taiwan

Hundreds of thousands of people used flight-tracking websites to trace House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s historic flight to Taiwan on Tuesday (Aug. 2).

Real-time tracking of Pelosi’s flight is made possible by a system known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B, which uses the precise tracking provided by global positioning system satellites to provide accurate situational awareness to air traffic controllers.

Most of the ADS-B system relies on next-generation Iridium communications satellites, according to the statement. (will open in a new tab) from Aireon, a provider of space-based air traffic control services.

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At some point, as Pelosi’s flight began to descend into Taiwan, the popular flight tracking website FlightRadar24 (will open in a new tab) (FR24) showed more than 345,000 people watching the trajectory of SPAR19, the call sign assigned to the US Air Force Boeing C-40C transport aircraft it flew.

According to a statement posted on Twitter, many users were unable to access the site at the time due to what FR24 described as “unprecedented sustained interest in tracking.” (will open in a new tab).

Flight tracking image showing Nancy Pelosi's flight to Taiwan.

Flight tracking image showing Nancy Pelosi’s flight to Taiwan. (Image credit: FR24 via Twitter)

Prior to the introduction of ADS-B satellite air traffic monitoring by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2013. (will open in a new tab)controllers and aviators connected to short-range radar and radio navigation aids (will open in a new tab). These terrestrial systems do not provide the accuracy of satellite systems and may be limited in range or blocked by terrain.

According to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), more accurate position data obtained from satellite navigation systems such as GPS enables more efficient and safer flights. (will open in a new tab).

“The increased accuracy, integrity and reliability of satellite signals compared to radar means that controllers can safely reduce the minimum distance between aircraft and increase capacity in the country’s skies,” the FAA said in a statement. (will open in a new tab).

“ADS-B also provides wider coverage, as ground stations are much easier to place than radars,” the statement said. “Remote areas without radar coverage, such as the Gulf of Mexico and much of Alaska, now have ADS-B coverage.”

Pelosi left Taiwan on Wednesday (August 3) after meeting with the country’s president and other senior officials. The outgoing flight of the speaker of the House of Representatives did not attract as much attention as her arrival, during which Chinese warplanes aggressively flew by. (will open in a new tab) into Taiwanese airspace.

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