updated 6/21/2012 12:21:11 PM ET 2012-06-21T16:21:11

Tired of monstrously long flights to Europe? A new space-based global tracking system should shave flight times by opening up new routes, including paths that take advantage of quick-forming wind streams.

Appeasing grumpy passengers is just the beginning. Shorter flights also reduce fuel consumption, which in turn cut greenhouse gas emissions, say partners in a project to outfit 72 Iridium communications satellites with equipment to track airplanes worldwide.

"It's a quantum improvement over how we operate today," said John Crichton, president of Nav Canada, a private company that provides air traffic control services in Canada.

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Nav Canada intends to be the first customer for the new service, which will be offered by an Iridium spin-off company called Aireon. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is interested as well.

The project builds on the ongoing effort to upgrade aircraft tracking systems from radars to GPS satellite navigation signals.Currently however, only about 10 percent of the planet has the GPS receivers to pick up an aircraft's signals. That limits the routes airplanes can fly, particularly those crossing the oceans or flying over the planet's poles.

Iridium intends to put GPS receivers on all of its next-generation satellites. The network, which primarily is used for global mobile communications, will include 66 operational spacecraft and six orbiting spares. They are scheduled to be launched aboard SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets beginning in 2015.

"There won't be any more blind spots anywhere in the world," said Iridium chief executive Matt Desch.

Project adviser Russ Chew, former Jet Blue Airways president and FAA operations manager, estimates the new system will save airlines between $6 billion and $8 billion over 12 years on their north Atlantic and north and central Pacific routes.

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He also said the carbon emissions savings would be the equivalent of taking two million cars off the highways every year.

Iridium and partners are bankrolling the project, which is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, Desch told Discovery News.

Aireon intends to make a profit by selling aircraft surveillance data to government agencies and private entities that need to track aircraft.

The project also demonstrates a way for cash-strapped government agencies to buy the services it needs without going through the cost and time of building, launching and operating its own spacecraft.

"The agencies are looking for opportunities to leverage commercial satellites,” Janet Nickloy, director of business development for Harris Corp. Space Systems, told Discovery News.

Harris is building the GPS receivers that will fly on Iridium's new satellites.

The project was announced this week at a National Press Club briefing in Washington, D.C.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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