Search and Rescue (SAR) Technology Research and Development

Search and Rescue Beacon Technology Development

Rescue beacons are critical to search and rescue efforts. These small devices emit a signal that satellites can pick up and use to locate ships, airplanes and individuals in distress. NASA plays a key role in developing, testing and troubleshooting this technology. The SAR team is currently working on a second-generation beacon system and exploring its many potential applications across diverse search and rescue efforts.

Second Generation Beacon

NASA is in the process of developing and testing new rescue beacons. Improvements in the technology will increase the robustness of the signal and reduce interference.

In combination with the SAR medium-Earth orbit GPS satellite system under development, second-generation beacons will make order-of-magnitude improvements over the current system, reducing the time required to find people in distress and increasing location accuracy.

ANGEL (SAR on a Chip)

The ANGEL project, undertaken by NASA’s SAR office and a number of agency resources, applies current and upcoming search and rescue technology to human spaceflight. Astronaut escape suits, which are used when astronauts splash back down to Earth, require beacons to allow rescue forces to locate each individual astronaut in the event of separation in the water.

The NASA SAR team is supporting the development of a second-generation beacon for ANGEL that will attach to the astronaut’s life preserver unit, leveraging the latest beacon technology to assist in post-landing crew location and rescue.


Recent events such as the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 have called attention to the need for improved reliability in distress beacons for airplanes, called emergency locator transmitters (ELTs). Utilizing existing aeronautics expertise within the agency, NASA’s SAR office coordinated and managed a comprehensive study of aircraft distress beacon failures to develop recommendations for the Federal Aviation Administration, emergency beacon manufacturers and airframe manufacturers regarding beacon survivability.

Global Distress Tracking (ELT-DT)

In response to recent aviation disasters, the international community has requested that global, real-time tracking systems be in operation for commercial airlines by 2021. Recommending second-generation beacon technology as a solution, NASA is currently developing specifications for a new aviation distress-tracking ELT system, and is working to complete them in time for a 2019 installation in order to meet the international deadline.

Search and Rescue Ground Segment Technology Development

NASA researches and develops new technology for all U.S. search and rescue ground stations. The SAR office’s work ensures that ground stations are sufficient to meet global performance standards, demonstrating and testing new technologies like those for rescue beacons, troubleshooting antennas, and more.

Search and Rescue Technology Lab

The SAR Lab at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center acts as a research and development lab for both national and international SAR efforts. The lab develops and tests new technology and troubleshoots challenges with existing technology. Working hand-in-hand with NOAA, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Coast Guard, it supports the U.S. operational search and rescue ground systems, as well as SAR satellites, such as the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite series and Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system.

Medium-Earth Orbit SAR Technology Development Support

NASA’s SAR office is supporting the development and integration of the next-generation SAR satellite instrument, which will use a constellation of satellites in medium-Earth orbit to host search and rescue instruments. The SAR Lab led the way on a proof-of-concept system, consisting of the world’s first medium-Earth orbit local user terminal (MEOLUT) at Goddard and instruments for deployment aboard GPS medium-Earth orbit (MEO) satellites.  The new SAR GPS instruments, in tandem with global MEOLUTs and other space segment providers, will complete the MEO SAR system.

Spacecraft Support for NOAA and the U.S. Air Force

NASA supports NOAA’s low-Earth orbit and geostationary satellite missions, providing launch services and on-orbit testing to NOAA search and rescue satellites, as well as anomaly investigations and instrument development support.   NASA also supports SAR GPS instrument development and integration onto the Air Force’s GPS constellation, providing commissioning and post-launch troubleshooting.

Phased Array Technology Research and Development

The international community is working on ways to enhance SAR capabilities and reduce antenna costs.  Phased-array ground station antennas can track several satellites at once, unlike the traditional SAR antenna setup which uses one antenna per satellite. NASA is supporting the effort to research and develop this technology for SAR use.

Local Homing/Direction Finding Development

NASA is developing a new direction-finding receiver that can home in on the frequency of the second-generation beacons. Because the new beacons are still under development, NASA is the first organization to begin working on these new receivers.

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) for Search and Rescue

NASA is pioneering the use of unmanned aerial systems in search and rescue for the U.S. Coast Guard. Implementing this technology would reduce the risk to humans when undertaking difficult or dangerous search and rescue efforts. The unmanned aerial vehicles will be fitted with the new local homing/direction finding receivers to guide them to the beacons.

Search and Rescue Space Segment Technology Development

NASA investigates new ideas and innovations for space-based SAR efforts. They develop these ideas into demonstration missions to determine the viability of the technology and then, if successful, help to guide the deployment of the technology on existing or new missions.

LEO/GEO Instrument Support

NASA’s SAR office assists with developing instruments for satellites that support search-and-rescue efforts in low-Earth orbit or geostationary orbit, such as the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES). Most recently, NASA provided support to the GOES-R spacecraft program through post-launch commissioning.

Search and Rescue GPS

NASA supports the Canadian Department of National Defense (DND) as they develop a next-generation search-and-rescue repeater instrument that will greatly reduce time to locate the origin of the distress signal and also pinpoint the location much more accurately. Using its extensive expertise in spacecraft/instrument development, integration and testing, NASA provides systems engineering and safety/mission assurance support to the DND. They are working to ensure the right processes and systems are in place for the development and delivery of these repeaters to the U.S. Air Force for inclusion on the next generation of GPS spacecraft.