Weather Satellites Aid Search and Rescue Capabilities

The same satellites that identify severe weather can help save you from it.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) constellation monitors Earth’s environment, helping meteorologists observe and predict the weather. GOES observations have tracked thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes and flash floods. They’ve even proven useful in monitoring dust storms, forest fires and volcanic activity.

The recently launched GOES-S (planned to replace the current GOES-West later this year) and other GOES series satellites carry a payload supported by NASA’s Search and Rescue (SAR) office, which researches and develops technologies to help first responders locate people in distress worldwide, whether from a plane crash, a boating accident or other emergencies.

GOES satellites view large swathes of Earth from their vantage points 22,236 miles above the equator.
Credits: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

Over its history, the SAR office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has developed emergency beacons for personal, nautical and aeronautical use, along with ground station receivers that detect beacon activation. Space segment SAR instruments fly on many spacecraft in various orbits around the Earth. The GOES SAR transponders are geostationary, meaning that they appear “fixed” relative to a user on the surface due to their location over the equator and orbital period of 24 hours.

“The SAR space segment isn’t just one instrument in one orbit,” said Tony Foster, SAR’s deputy mission manager. “Rather it’s a series of instruments aboard diverse satellites in various orbits, each working together to provide first responders with highly accurate locations.”

The GOES search and rescue transponders, unlike SAR instruments in other orbits, are only able to detect the beacon signals, not help to determine location. This detection rapidly alerts the global SAR network, Cospas-Sarsat, of a distress beacon’s activation. This gives the system valuable time to prepare before the signal’s origin can be determined by SAR instruments on low-Earth-orbiting satellites.

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