SpaceX and Iridium launching satellites that could someday revolutionize international air travel

Key Points
  • SpaceX's launch Friday marks the halfway point in putting a 75-satellite constellation into orbit.
  • Iridium CEO Matt Desch says the Aireon system on board the satellites "could reduce both the cost and time of air travel."
  • "Aireon makes the whole planet visible to air traffic controllers," Desch says.
Photo courtesy SpaceX

SpaceX is set to launch 10 Iridium satellites on Friday, marking a halfway point in a contract to deliver 75 satellites to low-earth orbit for the satellite communications provider. When completed, this "constellation" of low-earth-orbit satellites could revolutionize air traffic control, allowing planes to fly shorter and more direct routes.

The key is a system called Aireon, which will launch aboard every satellite. The system will be able to track airplanes anywhere on the planet, Iridium CEO Matt Desch told CNBC before the launch.

Today, airliners can fly direct routes, such as from Little Rock to Chicago, when they are overland. But once a jet heads more than 100 to 150 miles offshore, it enters procedural airspace, where air traffic controllers must rely on a pilot to relay an aircraft's position every 10 minutes.

An example is a flight from New York's Kennedy airport down to the Caribbean. If it runs into bad weather in North Carolina, the pilot could head out to sea to get around the storm. However, air traffic controllers might not approve a a route like that because then they lose sight of the aircraft.

"Aireon means airlines can fly more direct routes, which could reduce both the cost and time of air travel," Desch said. "Aireon makes the whole planet visible to air traffic controllers."

Desch says the Federal Aviation Administration has been testing the service under its NextGen program, but hasn't made a final decision. "We'll probably hear a decision in 2018, putting things on track to implement in 2020 or so," Desch said.

The FAA did not respond to CNBC requests for comment.

Beyond adding next generation tracking capabilities, Desch noted that Aireon's hardware takes up none of Iridium's communication capacity. The Aireon payload piggybacks onboard the Iridium satellites, listening on a different frequency than the Iridium broadband.

The Aireon system is only part of what Iridium hopes to achieve. The satellites will be focused on expanding Iridium's satellite communications service from around 900,000 devices to up to 10 million devices.

"Our networks provide a safety umbrella of coverage around the world, over 100 percent of the Earth," Desch added. "Consumers may not care what happens on the North Pole or in the middle of the ocean, but countries and companies can depend upon that service."

The Iridium-4 mission will launch on a reused SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base on Friday evening. The launch, which was delayed from its original target date in October, will use the booster that landed after sending up the Iridium-2 mission in June. This time, however, SpaceX will not attempt to land or recover the Falcon9's first stage.

This will be the 18th launch for Elon Musk's space company this year, the first in history that commercial launches will outpace government-sponsored ones.

Watch the mission live at 8:27 p.m. ET.