NOAA satellite program lets you send SOS to space if lost while adventuring

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Did you know that, if you’re a frequent explorer, hiker, mountaineer, boater, diver, or a pilot, you can signal for help via satellite?

That’s right, since 1982, NOAA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have operated a program called SARSAT, which uses Cospas-SARSAT satellite distress beacons to signal for help from government authorities to those in need.

The program has helped rescue more than 50,000 people since 1982, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Of the more than 50,000 rescues performed with the Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking system since 1982 internationally, 9,917 were in the US

In 2022, the program has already saved 194 people, year-to-date.

The SARSAT program traces its flight path back to October 1972, according to NOAA. That month, US congressmen Hale Boggs and Nick Begich, from Louisiana and Alaska, were on a plane that went missing in a remote part of Alaska.

A massive search and rescue effort was mounted, but to this day, no trace of them or their aircraft has been found. In response to this tragedy, Congress mandated that all aircraft in the United States carry an Emergency Locator Transmitter, ”NOAA said.

According to NOAA’s history of the program’s, the US, Canada, and France developed SARSAT after “looking at space as a solution” for search and rescue. While NASA took the lead for the US, the program was a multi-agency effort, partnering NOAA, NASA, the US Coast Guard and the US Air Force.

A separate COSPAS system was developed by the Soviet Union. In 1979, it joined the other three countries to create the Cospas-SARSAT program.

After development finished and the system took off, NOAA became the main operator. USCG took the mission to heart after seeing the “benefits of 406 MHz” transponders. In 1990, NOAA said USCG brought the beacons “into widespread usage,” with more than 723,000 emergency beacons now registered for the NOAA database.

There are three types of 406 beacons, and all of them can be used to send out distress signals. The three types are for maritime use, aviation, and handheld portable units when traveling in remote locations.

When activated, the beacons send a signal that reaches “over 22,000 miles into space” and pings a satellite. Beacon owners are required to register their transmitters with NOAA. It helps them identify who needs a rescue.

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