Photo: COSPAS-SARSAT System Overview.  Credit: NOAA

The international program that uses a sophisticated, high-tech, satellite-to-ground relay system to find and rescue people from potentially deadly situations is celebrating 25 years of operation. Since its creation in 1982, the Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking program, or COSPAS-SARSAT, has been credited with more than 22,000 rescues worldwide, including nearly 6,000 in the United States and its surrounding waters.

Meghan Miner, a contract fisheries observer for the NOAA Fisheries Service, was one of the thousands saved. At a press briefing today at the SARSAT Mission Control Center in Suitland, Md., Miner described her rescue from a fishing vessel that sank Friday, Sept. 28, 2007, 40 miles southeast of Nantucket Island.

"Before the boat went down, I activated my personal locator beacon," Miner said. She and five other crew members then boarded a life raft. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter that received the location of the distress signal, guided a rescue vessel toward the raft. "It was getting dark, and it was raining, but we began seeing lights from other boats and we fired off flares. Within 45 minutes one of the boats was along side us," Miner said.

Top officials from NOAA, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Air Force - the agencies that comprise the well-coordinated U.S. portion of the SARSAT program - spoke about its benefits to the nation.

"For 25 years, the SARSAT program has done what it was intended to do - save lives," said retired Navy Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Ph.D., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. "Just like with Meghan, the success of SARSAT lies in the people who are saved, and that's a direct result of this interagency and international partnership."

"The U.S. Coast Guard has save more than a million lives, since our founding in 1790, and for the past 25 years, SARSAT has played a major role in assisting us locate and rescue those in distress," said Rear Admiral Wayne E. Justice, assistant commandant for response operations.

"Since the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center opened in 1974, we have seen almost 14,000 lives saved by the their quick reaction," said Maj. Gen. (Select) Marke F. Gibson, Director of Operations, Deputy Chief of Staff, Air, Space and Information Operations, Plans and Requirements. "When a human life is hanging in the balance, every minute counts when responding to a distress signal."

Lautenbacher also announced that NOAA awarded an $18 million contract to Science Systems and Application, Inc., of Lanham, Md., to provide around-the-clock technical and operational support for the Mission Control Center. "This type of support means SARSAT will save many more lives for the foreseeable future," he said.

Partnership in Motion
NOAA's polar and geostationary environmental satellites are critical to the SARSAT system. A global network of spacecraft, including all of NOAA's satellites and spacecraft flown by NOAA's partners, quickly detect and locate distress signals from emergency beacons onboard aircraft, boats and from hand-held personal locator beacons.

When a NOAA satellite pinpoints a distress location within the United States, or its surrounding waters, the information is relayed to the Mission Control Center and sent to a Rescue Coordination Center, operated either by the Air Force for land rescues, or Coast Guard for water rescues.

Changeover to 406 Frequency
Older emergency beacons, which operate on the 121.5 and 243 megahertz frequencies, will be phased out by Feb. 1, 2009, when 406 megahertz beacons will become