Goddard Spearheads Distress Beacon, Ground Segment Upgrades to Enhance Life-Saving Activities

A rescue involving a helicopter is made possible with the search and rescue technology made by NASA's office
NASA's Search and Rescue Office creates technology that helps first responders locate and rescue people in distress.
Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Every year, hundreds of people in the U.S. are saved from boating, hiking, airplane and other emergencies through the use of portable distress beacons, which send signals to search and rescue satellites and help provide a location to authorities. As part of efforts by NASA and its partners to develop and implement quicker, more accurate second-generation emergency locator beacons, NASA’s Search and Rescue (SAR) office at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, recently completed upgrades to its ground station, making the station the first to be compatible with the second-generation beacons.

The new search and rescue ground station console at NASA Goddard
Hardware and software upgrades were made in mid-May to make the SAR ground station in Greenbelt, Maryland, compatible with the second-generation beacons. The SAR office is now testing the ground station.
Credit: NASA Goddard

Second-generation beacons will enable search and rescue teams to locate victims much more quickly. In the event of an emergency, satellites can currently pinpoint emergency locator beacon signals with a location accuracy of within 800 meters to 1 kilometer of the beacon, or within around nine to 11 football fields. The second-generation beacons will considerably enhance location accuracy to within 100 to 150 meters of the beacon, or within around one football field from the beacon.

Goddard’s SAR office, in partnership with NASA’s Orion Crew Survival Engineering team, is leading testing and development of the second-generation beacon. At the same time, the office completed hardware and software upgrades in mid-May to its search and rescue ground station, making the station compatible with the future beacons.

The newly compatible ground station is successfully being tested in conjunction with the second-generation beacon prototype, with tests achieving the required location accuracy of within 100 to 150 meters. After NASA has successfully tested the ground station, operational search and rescue stations in the U.S. can be similarly upgraded. NASA will also share its results with the international search and rescue program, Cospas-Sarsat, helping partners around the world in upgrading their ground stations.

The second-generation beacon, which must be approved by certified Cospas-Sarsat test facilities, is expected to be on the market by early 2019. Current testing will check beacon performance, and the data will further be used to help prepare Cospas-Sarsat facilities to test and approve the beacons.

Search and rescue teams have saved more than 8,000 people in the U.S. since 1982 using emergency locator beacons, and upgrades to the search and rescue system will significantly improve the capability to make rescues. In addition to use by hikers and boaters, second-generation beacons will be used by airplanes to boost safety in the wake of recent disappearances and by astronauts aboard future NASA Orion missions.

The Goddard SAR office provides critical support to life-saving systems around the world by developing and testing new search and rescue technologies. In addition to its work on the second-generation beacon and ground station upgrades, the office is also helping to develop and integrate new search and rescue satellites that will provide global coverage and are compatible with the second-generation beacons.

To read more about the Goddard SAR office’s research and development projects, visit: https://esc.gsfc.nasa.gov/sar-projects

By Seema Vithlani
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

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