Beacon R&D

Emergency locator 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 beacon development and testing. The team is currently working on a second-generation beacon beacon and ground receiver 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 second-generation beacons, moving from a narrow-band frequency to a spread-spectrum signal in order to 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 persons in distress and increasing location accuracy. NASA is responsible for the proof-of-concept testing of second generation beacons, which is currently underway.

Project ANGEL
The ANGEL project, a partnership between NASA’s SAR Office and Johnson Space Center’s Orion Program, applies current and upcoming SAR technology to human spaceflight. Astronaut escape suits require emergency distress locators to allow rescue forces to locate each individual astronaut in the event of separation.  These second-generation beacons are being designed to meet size, mass and environmental constraints in order to be placed on the astronauts’ suits.

Recent events such as the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 have called attention to the need for improved reliability in emergency locator transmitters (ELTs). In partnership with a number of government and commercial entities, NASA’s SAR Office, in partnership with NASA’s Langley Research Center, have completed a comprehensive study of ELT system installations.  The goal of this study was to examine failure scenarios and provide improvement recommendations to national and international administrations and agencies, emergency beacon manufacturers and airframe manufacturers regarding ELT survivability.  

Global Distress Tracking (ELT-DT)
In connection with ELTSAR and the recent aviation disasters, the international community has requested improved emergency locator beacons be installed on commercial airlines by 2021. NASA is pursuing a second-generation beacon solution to the new aviation ELT system and is working to ensure that their development will meet international requirements. 

Ground Segment R&D

NASA provides research and development support to SAR ground systems. That includes designing the U.S.’s ground stations and ensuring they are sufficient to meet global performance standards, demonstrating and testing new technologies like those for beacons, troubleshooting antennas, and more.

SAR Lab Overview
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 both develops and tests new technology, such as the second-generation beacon and ANGEL, and troubleshoots challenges with existing technology. Working hand-in-hand with NOAA, it supports the U.S.’s SAR payloads on existing satellites, such as the GOES series, and associated SAR ground systems.

NASA’s SAR office led the development of the Distress Alerting Satellite System (DASS), which uses a constellation of GPS 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 satellites (MEOSAR).  

LEO/GEO Support for NOAA
NASA supports NOAA’s low-Earth orbit and geostationary satellite missions, providing post-launch services and on-orbit testing to NOAA search-and-rescue satellites, as well as anomaly investigations and instrument development support.

Phased Array R&D/Analysis
The international community is researching new antenna systems that may enhance SAR capabilities.  One such system is a phased-array antenna.  These 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 U.S. SARSAT program by conducting a feasibility study on the use of phased-array antennas for SAR.

Local Homing/Direction Finding
NASA is developing a new direction-finding receiver that can home in on the frequency of the second-generation beacons. This new receiver is a critical step in implementing second-generation beacons, as there is currently no solution on the market that can provide local homing of that signal.

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) SAR
NASA is currently researching the use of unmanned aerial systems in search and rescue for the U.S. Coast Guard. Implementing this technology would spare the risk of humans when undertaking difficult or dangerous search-and-rescue missions. Unmanned aerial vehicles can be fitted with local homing/direction-finding receivers to guide them to first- or second-generation beacons. NASA is supporting development of field testing of this scenario, as well as the concepts of how UAVs can benefit the U.S. Coast Guard.

Space Segment R&D

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.

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.