Search and Rescue saves for the U.S. network region in 2020. Credit: NOAA

NASA Search and Rescue Technologies Saved Hundreds in 2020

By Kendall Murphy

January 26, 2021

NASA’s Search and Rescue (SAR) office plays a vital and life-saving role in satellite-aided search and rescue effort worldwide. In 2020, SAR technologies helped first responders locate and rescue 304 people in the United States and even more individuals worldwide.

Of the 304 people saved last year, 217 rescues were boaters and sailors, 75 were personal beacons users, and 12 were aircraft rescues.

“Even in a year where many stayed home to stop the spread of COVID-19, the search and rescue network remained a life-saving piece of infrastructure,” said SAR Mission Manager Lisa Mazucca. “Looking to the year ahead, our team is excited to continue developing network upgrades and growing our support of lunar exploration efforts.”

Since 1982, Cospas-Sarsat, the international satellite-aided search and rescue effort, has assisted with the rescue of over 48,000 people worldwide and 9,393 people in the United States. These efforts would not be possible without the help of NASA search and rescue technologies.

Adventurers in distress — whether they're hiking, sailing, or flying — can activate their beacons. The system then uses satellites to relay distress signals from specifically designed 406MHz beacons to ground stations. The network applies data received by the ground stations to calculate a signal’s location anywhere in the world. Network operators forward that location information to first responders, who perform rescue operations.

The SAR office, based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has developed mission-critical technologies for the Cospas-Sarsat program, which started as an agreement between Canada, France, the former Soviet Union, and the United States. This now includes 45 countries and organizations worldwide.

Today, the SAR office is helping to upgrade the Cospas-Sarsat network to provide beacon users with quicker response times and improved accuracy. This involves improvements to both the flight and ground components of the network, as well as new second-generation emergency beacons that will be commercially available to the general public in the coming years.

The first users of the second-generation beacon technology will be the astronauts journeying to the Moon as part of the Artemis missions. Their specialized Advanced Next-Generation Emergency Locator (ANGEL) beacons were developed by the SAR office in collaboration with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The ANGEL beacons will allow NASA to locate astronauts in the event they need to egress from the Orion capsule into the ocean after splashdown or a launch abort scenario.

Additionally, the SAR office will empower the Artemis missions by developing lunar search and rescue capabilities. LunaSAR – lunar search and rescue – will use ANGEL beacons in tandem with the LunaNet architecture to enhance safety of lunar surface operations as NASA seeks to establish a sustained presence on the Moon.

The SAR office has a unique portfolio that advances NASA’s exploration missions while saving the lives of terrestrial explorers. The 302 individuals saved by the Cospas-Sarsat network are a testament to the life-saving power of NASA innovation and expertise.