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NASA Search and Rescue: Saving Earth-based Explorers and Enabling Exploration

Map of the USA with Plane, Boat, and Hiker in black, grey and white
NASA's Search and Rescue office develops the technology behind emergency locator beacons.

In 2022, NASA-developed Search and Rescue technologies enabled rescue personnel to save 397 lives in the U.S. region. Since 1979, NASA has provided technical expertise to the Cospas-Sarsat program, the international satellite-aided search and rescue effort. This technical expertise has led to the development of multiple emergency location beacon types.

Number of rescues enabled by SAR technologies in 2022: 397
NASA’s Search and Rescue technologies enable hundreds of lives saved in 2022.

The international search and rescue effort enables hikers, boaters, pilots, and other explorers to activate location beacons should they become distressed or lost. Adventurers can utilize 406 MHz frequency Cospas-Sarsat beacons, which equip users with precise and reliable emergency location services. Upon activation, these beacons send signals to satellites in space, which then relay the distress signals to ground stations. This process allows the Cospas-Sarsat network to calculate their position anywhere in the world. The network then sends the location to first responders, who initiate rescue operations.

These beacons enable explorers with a sense of safety as they venture on land, air, and sea. There are three types of beacons available for users: Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs), used by hikers and other land explorers; Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs), for boaters and sailors; and Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELT) for aircraft pilots.

In 2022, 80 rescues were made for activated PLBs; 275 for EPIRBs; and 42 for ELTs.

The Search and Rescue (SAR) office is part of the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) portfolio and will be essential for NASA’s endeavor to the Moon and Mars. On December 11, 2022, Search and Rescue team members on the USS Portland used a newly-developed Search and Rescue Intelligent Terminal (SAINT) to track the Artemis I Orion capsule as it re-entered the atmosphere and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after a 25-day journey to the Moon and back.

This technology will be essential for future crewed missions to the Moon. Astronauts on Artemis II and beyond will be equipped with Advanced Next-Generation Emergency Locator (ANGEL) beacons, which will allow NASA to locate astronauts in the event they need to egress from the Orion capsule after splashdown or during a launch abort scenario.

Earth-based beacon development is not the only service provided by NASA’s Search and Rescue office. In addition to supporting the Artemis program, the Search and Rescue office is working toward the establishment of lunar search and rescue, or LunaSAR, which will provide distress location services for crewed and robotic missions on the lunar surface. This service is in coordination with NASA’s LunaNet architecture, which will extend internet-like capabilities to the Moon. LunaSAR and LunaNet will work in tandem to sustain a human 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 397 individuals saved by the Cospas-Sarsat network are a testament to the life-saving power of NASA innovation and expertise.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) manages the U.S. network region for Cospas-Sarsat, which relies on flight and ground technologies originally developed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program at NASA Headquarters provides strategic oversight to the SAR office. U.S. saves are made by the U.S. Coast GuardU.S. Air Force, and many other local rescue authorities.

By Kendall Murphy
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.