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Search & Rescue

Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT)

A Beacon of Hope to Those in Distress

NOAA satellites do more than just monitor the weather. They also detect and relay distress signals from emergency beacons to the appropriate search and rescue authorities. This tells them who is in trouble and, more importantly, where they are located.

The NOAA–SARSAT program is part of COSPAS–SARSAT, an international satellite-based monitoring initiative to which 45 nations and independent search and rescue organizations belong. Using this system, authorities can locate beacons almost anywhere in the world at any time, and in almost any condition. 

COSPAS stands for "COsmicheskaya Sisteyama Poiska Avariynich Sudov," Russian for “Space System for the Search of Vessels in Distress.” 

A sailor is recued at sea.
A sailor being rescued at sea.

SARSAT Tracking Application

Each icon on this map represents one rescue event, though multiple saves may be involved with each event. The Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) system is able to detect three types of beacons: Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs), and Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs).

SARSAT Rescues

  • Rescues at sea: 146 people rescued in 56 incidents
  • Aviation rescues:  25 people rescued in 13 incidents
  • Terrestrial PLB rescues:  96 people rescued in 59 incidents
  • Worldwide – Over 48,000+ people rescued (since 1982)
  • United States – 9,660 people rescued (since 1982)

267 - Number of People Rescued in 2021 in the United States as of October 15th

 

The COSPAS–SARSAT Program

This program consists of: 

  • Emergency beacons that transmit distress signals
  • Satellites that detect the distress signals
  • Ground receiving stations that receive and process the satellite signals to generate distress alerts
  • Mission control centers that receive the alerts and forward them to rescue coordination centers, operated by the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Air Force.

The U.S. SARSAT system uses NOAA satellites in low-earth and geostationary orbits as well as GPS satellites in medium earth orbit to detect and locate aviators, mariners, and land-based users in distress. The satellites relay distress signals from emergency beacons to a network of ground stations and ultimately to the U.S. Mission Control Center (USMCC) in Suitland, Maryland.

Types of beacons
Types of search and rescue beacons.

 

The four agencies involved in the U.S. SARSAT program

Emblems of the SARSAT agencies: NOAA, NASA, Coast Guard, and Air Force
  • NOAA: System Operation and representative to COSPAS-SARSAT
  • NASA: Research and Development 
  • U.S. Coast Guard: Maritime Search and Rescue 
  • U.S. Air Force: Inland Search and Rescue

 

History

A newspaper clipping about the disappearance of a small plane in Alaska carrying Rep. Hale Boggs (D-La.) along with Rep. Nick Begich, and others, in 1972.
Credit: Arizona Daily Star

The first beacons used the existing 121.5/243 MHz emergency locator transmitters (ELTs) designed for military aircraft in the 1950s. After a small plane carrying Rep. Hale Boggs (D-La.) along with Rep. Nick Begich (D-Alaska) and others disappeared in Alaska in 1972, Congress mandated ELTs on all U.S. aircraft. Canada soon did the same. 

However, early models were not as easy to detect, and there was no way to identify a specific beacon or find its exact location. Thus, engineers began developing new, more robust digital beacons that operated at 406 MHz. Signals from these new beacons could be received from anywhere on the planet, located accurately and almost instantly, and rescue forces would know who and what to look for.

The United States and Canada began looking for other international partners with the ability to launch satellites to achieve a truly global distress alerting satellite system. Russia and France soon signed on to help develop the system for humanitarian purposes. 

On June 30, 1982, Russia launched the first experimental COSPAS–SARSAT satellite. Before it was even officially declared operational, the first distress signal was detected—a downed Canadian aircraft. Within the first hundred days of the satellite’s operation, seven people were rescued using the system. Soon after, NASA launched their own SARSAT payload on NOAA-8. The program has continued to grow ever since. 

Today, with newer, more advanced beacons and a global network of next generation satellites, COSPAS–SARSAT strives to keep improving its ability to take the “search” out of “search and rescue” and ultimately save lives. 

 

Important Information

All U.S. coded beacons MUST be registered with NOAA. Read our registration brochure to learn more

Safety Notices

  • Airworthiness Directives
  • Ameri-King Corporation ELTs
  • Warning regarding unapproved beacon batteries
  • Kannad SAFELINK EPIRB recall