NOAA’s fleet of satellites played a vital role in the rescues of 195 people during life-threatening situations throughout the United States and its surrounding waters in 2009, said Shawn Maddock, a lieutenant with NOAA. The agency’s satellites pinpointed downed pilots, shipwrecked mariners or stranded hikers by detecting distress signals from emergency beacons and relayed the information to first responders.

NOAA deploys polar-orbiting and geostationary satellites — along with Russia’s Cospas spacecraft — as part of the international Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking system, or COSPAS-SARSAT. This system uses a network of satellites to detect and locate distress signals from emergency beacons onboard aircraft and boats or from handheld personal locator beacons, he said.

“If you have any type of emergency beacon that works on the 406 MHz frequency — and you activate that beacon — the satellites will pick those up,” Maddock said. “The polar orbiters are traveling at 17,000 mph and they can determine the location of the beacon.”

When a NOAA satellite locates a distress signal within the United States or its surrounding waters, it relays the information to the SARSAT mission-control center at NOAA’s Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Md. From there, the information is sent to a rescue coordination center (RCC) operated by either the U.S. Air Force, for land rescues, or the U.S. Coast Guard, for water rescues.

“From the time the beacon is activated until the message gets to the RCC it is all automated,” Maddock said. “There’s no human intervention at all.”

Information travels from the beacon to the RCC in about 8 to 10 minutes, Maddock said. If the beacon has a GPS chip, it will reduce the search-area radius.

“If you have a GPS chip inside your beacon, you’re talking about a 100-yard search radius to start with,” he said.

Now in its 28th year, COSPAS-SARSAT has been credited with supporting more than 27,000 rescues worldwide, including 6,232 in the United States and its surrounding waters, Maddock said.

2009 rescue stats

  • 195 saves
  • 154 from the water
  • 33 people from personal locator beacons
  • 8 on land

Top 2009 rescues by state

  • Alaska 49
  • Florida 30
  • Texas 32