Alternative to "Black Boxes" Takes Flight

Air France crash renews interest in real-time flight-data reporting systems

4 min read

16 September 2009—Deep in the waters of the Atlantic lies the only hope of knowing exactly what brought down Air France flight 447, which killed all 228 people on board. It has been more than three months since the crash, and the investigators' holy grail, the aircraft's 'black boxes,' have long since ceased emitting their distinctive ultrahigh-frequency 'ping,' so the search for them has been called off. The recorders, and any insight they could have provided, are lost.

In this age of constant connectivity, many people wonder why the aviation industry still relies on onboard recording devices. Why not a system that transmits information in real time?

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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