U.S. SARSAT Rescues Celebrate 30 Years

October 8, 2012

First rescue via SARSAT/COSPAS, which took place 300 miles off the coast of New England on October 10, 1982

First rescue via SARSAT/COSPAS, which took place 300 miles off the coast of New England on October 10, 1982

From stranded hikers lost in hilly unfamiliar terrain to off course yachtsmen trying to navigate stormy seas, the extraordinary benefits of NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites, or GOES, and the Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites, or POES, are immeasurable to search and rescues. This October marks the 30th anniversary of the first U.S. based rescue using the Search and Rescue Satellite-aided Tracking, or SARSAT, response system. NOAA is a part of SARSAT, the international program responsible for the rescue of more than 30,000 people worldwide and nearly 7,000 in the United States since the SARSAT inception in 1982.

The First U.S. SARSAT Rescue

On October 10, 1982, approximately 300 miles off the coast of New England, a catamaran sailboat with three people on board battled towering, 25-foot waves. The boat began to sink. A space orbiting satellite detected the signal from an emergency beacon onboard the boat. Within a short space of time, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter pulled the three passengers to safety and made the first official U.S. SARSAT rescue.

Where it all Began
Congressman Hale Boggs (D-LA)

Congressman Hale Boggs (D-LA)

In October 1972, a small plane carrying Congressman Hale Boggs (D-LA), Rep. Nick Begich (D- AK), and two others, disappeared on its flight from Anchorage to Juneau, Alaska. Although an extensive air, sea, and land search was conducted over the following 39 days, the plane was never found. Because of the tragic loss, the U.S. Congress began its efforts to establish SARSAT.

The SARSAT system came together as a joint collaboration between the United States, Canada, and France. In the United States, NASA developed the SARSAT system. Upon its functionality, its operation was turned over to and maintained by NOAA.

A similar system called COSPAS was developed by the Soviet Union. The four nations, United States, Canada, France and the Soviet Union banded together in 1979 to form COSPAS-SARSAT. In 1982, the first satellite was launched; by 1984, the system was declared operational.

Rep. Nick Begich (D-AK)

Rep. Nick Begich (D-AK)

The Satellites supporting SARSAT

Search and Rescue (SAR) instruments are flown on GOES and POES spacecraft. The GOES orbits 22,300 miles above the Earth's equator and monitors the western hemisphere for distress signals while the POES circle the Earth 540 miles above the surface near the poles pinpointing the actual beacon locations. These on-board instruments detect signals transmitted from emergency beacons on the Earth's surface and assist in search and rescue by locating people, planes, and ships with activated emergency locator beacons.

At any time, in any condition, and almost anywhere in the world, the system can detect and locate mariners, aviators and recreational enthusiasts that are lost or in distress. The distress signals from emergency beacons are relayed through a network of ground stations and to the U.S. Mission Control Center at the NOAA Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Maryland. The information is then received by first responders to locate those in lost or in distress.

SARSAT System Overview Diagram

SARSAT System Overview Diagram [Click to view larger]

SARSAT Rescues over the Years

On the morning of April 20th of this year, a fishing boat, with a crew of three, ran aground and took on water in Sapelo Sound, Ga. Before abandoning their sinking vessel for a life raft, a crewmember was able to sound the vessel's Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). The U.S. Coast Guard District Seven Rescue Coordination Center (CGD07) received the SARSAT alert and issued an emergency broadcast for the area. A Coast Guard rescue crew transported the boaters safely to land.

On May 4th, an Air Force F-16 pilot in a remote Utah desert was rescued with the aid of the SARSAT. The activated alert provided the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center with the personal locator beacon (PLB) coordinates that located the pilot. These are just a couple of the numerous NOAA supported SARSAT rescues. For an interactive google map of U.S. SARSAT Rescues for 2012, visit: http://www.nesdis.noaa.gov/sarsat_rescues_2012.html.

Today, there are more than 240,000, 406 MHz emergency beacons in use in the SARSAT program. During the last 30 years, more than 30,000 lives have been saved, worldwide, including more than 6,700 in the U.S. and its surrounding waters because of NOAA/NESDIS environmental satellites' contributions to SARSAT.

SARSAT Rescues Google Map

SARSAT Website

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