NOAA satellites: Helping save lives for 30 years

Oct 10, 2012
First rescue via SARSAT/COSPAS, which took place 300 miles off the coast of New England on October 10, 1982. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Thirty years ago, about 300 miles off the coast of New England, a barrage of towering, 25-foot waves battered a catamaran sailboat, causing it to begin sinking. A satellite, orbiting in space, detected the signal from an emergency beacon onboard the boat. A short while later, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter pulled the three passengers to safety.  

The Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking system, or Cospas-SARSAT, is celebrating the 30th anniversary of this first life-saving rescue in the United States, which occurred October 10, 1982. NOAA operates several satellites and the U.S. Mission Control Center as part of the international program that has been responsible for the rescue of more than 30,000 people worldwide and nearly 7,000 in the United States since its inception in 1982.

Cospas-SARSAT began as an effort between the United States, Canada, France and the former Soviet Union to establish a network of satellites, equipped with technology to detect and locate distress signals from emergency beacons onboard aircraft and ships, and later on from handheld personal locator beacons.

"Before SARSAT, there was no system to quickly find people who were in trouble whether they were sailing, went down in a , or if they were stranded in a remote area on a hiking trip," said Chris O'Connors, NOAA SARSAT program manager. "Time after time NOAA satellites have made the difference between life and death thanks to this international program."

SARSAT System Overview. Credit: NOAA

Today, 43 countries and organizations around the world participate in the operation and management of the Cospas-SARSAT program, which includes a total of 12 satellites.

SARSAT is a sophisticated satellite-to-ground relay system. When a satellite pinpoints a distress signal within the United States, or its surrounding waters, the information is relayed to the U.S. SARSAT Mission Control Center located at NOAA's Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Md. The information is then sent to a Rescue Coordination Center, operated by either the U.S. Air Force, for land rescues, or the U.S. Coast Guard, for maritime rescues.

One of the more notable SARSAT rescues during the past 30 years, include the rescue of Abby Sunderland in June 2010. Then 16-years old, Sunderland attempted a solo voyage around the world by boat, but ran into high winds and rough seas in the Indian Ocean.  Her distress signal was first detected by an Indian satellite, and then located by a NOAA satellite; the signal was relayed by ground stations in India and Pakistan, and finally saved by Australian and French rescuers.

An interactive map with details of each of the 198 rescues that have happened in the United States so far in 2012 can be found online.

Cmdr. Mark Turner, with the U.S. Coast Guard's Office of Search and Rescue, said, "Every minute counts when a life is in jeopardy. With the teamwork of NOAA and the U.S. search and rescue agencies, the SARSAT system does what it was intended to do – save lives."

In the United States, all emergency beacon owners are required by law to register their devices with NOAA. Through the end of August 2012, more than 350,000 emergency beacons were registered with the agency.

In the future, Cospas- SARSAT will transition to instruments mounted on the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) composed of new generation global positioning satellites from the , Russia, and European Union. There will be a total of 72 satellites in a medium-Earth orbit, which will allow for even greater and more accurate satellite coverage than today's SARSAT system. The future system is still in the development stage and should begin limited operations in 2015.

Allan Knox, manager of the USAF Search and Rescue/GPS program said, "The U.S. Air Force has relied upon SARSAT to help us locate distressed aviators and outdoorsmen throughout the U.S. and the world. And we are extremely excited about this future transition with advanced technology in space and the promising capabilities of the second generation of beacons."

Explore further: Magnitude-7.2 earthquake shakes Mexican capital

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Galileo to support global search and rescue

Aug 09, 2007

The detection of emergency beacons will be greatly improved by the introduction of Europe's satellite positioning system, Galileo. The Galileo satellites will carry transponders to relay distress signals to ...

The washable wearable antenna

Sep 30, 2011

Wearing an antenna – without anyone knowing – is making a splash in the world of search and rescue.

Taking the 'search' out of search and rescue

Sep 03, 2010

Their emergencies happened hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from one another, but the captain whose vessel had become disabled near Kamalino, Hawaii, the pilot who crashed onto the Knik Glacier near Anchorage, ...

NASA develops enhanced search and rescue technologies

May 24, 2010

NASA, which pioneered the technology used for the satellite-aided search and rescue capability that has saved more than 27,000 lives worldwide since its inception nearly three decades ago, has developed new technology that ...

NASA, NOAA set to launch NOAA-N Prime satellite

Jan 22, 2009

NASA is preparing to launch NOAA'S latest polar-orbiting operational environmental satellite, called NOAA-N Prime, providing an essential resource for NOAA's weather forecasts and improving the U.S. search ...

NASA, NOAA set to launch new environmental satellite

May 04, 2005

NASA is set to launch the new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite (POES), another critical link in the development of a global Earth-observation program. The spa ...

Recommended for you

Magnitude-7.2 earthquake shakes Mexican capital

Apr 18, 2014

A powerful magnitude-7.2 earthquake shook central and southern Mexico on Friday, sending panicked people into the streets. Some walls cracked and fell, but there were no reports of major damage or casualties.

User comments : 0

More news stories

China says massive area of its soil polluted

A huge area of China's soil covering more than twice the size of Spain is estimated to be polluted, the government said Thursday, announcing findings of a survey previously kept secret.

UN weather agency warns of 'El Nino' this year

The UN weather agency Tuesday warned there was a good chance of an "El Nino" climate phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean this year, bringing droughts and heavy rainfall to the rest of the world.

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...