Satellite Communications

Satellite-aided Search and Rescue

Improving use of COSPAS-SARSAT Satellite Search and Rescue System (SASR) is the key topic of a United Nations Workshop/Training Course series.

With the use of state of art space technology services, Search and Rescue (SAR) is receiving worldwide attention. Most of the space faring nations have included this as one of their important programme elements. The Cospas-Sarsat International Satellite System for search and rescue provides distress alert and location information for maritime, aviation and land users, and supports the search and rescue objectives of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The system is available to any country on a non-discriminatory basis and free of charge for the end-user in distress.

The system comprises:

  • a space segment operating in low-Earth orbit (LEO) and geostationary orbit (GEO);
  • a ground segment consisting of satellite receiving stations, known as local user terminals (LUT), and data distribution centres, known as mission control centres (MCC); and
  • emergency radio beacons operating at 121.5 MHz, 243 MHz and/or 406 MHz, the characteristics of which comply with appropriate provisions of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and Cospas-Sarsat specifications.

Approximately 660,000 121.5 MHz emergency beacons and 250,000 406 MHz emergency beacons are currently in use worldwide.

The newest technology for Cospas-Sarsat is the development of the 406 MHz emergency beacons that digitally transmit their identification and position in long message format. These beacons utilize either an external or internal electronic navigation receiver (e.g., Global Positioning System receiver) and can transmit their position down to 100 meter accuracy. This allows geo-stationary satellites to combine immediate alerts with precise locations. The polar orbiting satellites are also capable of receiving these signals, thereby providing global coverage. This feature reduces overall rescue time.

As a humanitarian search and rescue programme, Cospas-Sarsat has been in place for over 20 years. It has been providing critical assistance in terms of real/near-real time information support that helped in rescuing over 15,700 persons in nearly 5,000 SAR events from September 1982 to December 2002.

Countries or organizations may participate in the management and the operation of the system through their association with the Cospas-Sarsat programme. There are now 36 countries and organizations formally associated with Cospas-Sarsat programme, including the 4 parties to the international Cospas-Sarsat programme agreement (Canada, France, Russian Federation and the USA), which provide and operate the space segment system.

With the implementation of mandatory carriage requirements for emergency distress beacons for marine vessels and aircraft, the users of the Cospas-Sarsat system are growing rapidly. While many nations have established effective SAR services, many have not tapped into the tremendous value that Cospas-Sarsat can provide.

In the absence of well-knit space or ground segments, some nations have begun utilizing system for SAR alerting services of other countries by becoming a SAR Point of Contact (SPOC). Thus, for many developing nations there is an urgent need for capacity building in terms of education, training and policymaking to enable to appropriately benefit from these services.

As a part of this effort, the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs in cooperation with various countries have been organizing Workshops/Training Courses on Satellite-Aided Search and Rescue for the countries that are in the service area of a particular ground receiving station.

The prime objective of the UN Workshops/Training Courses is to promote an awareness of the International Cospas-Sarsat Satellite-Aided Search and Rescue Programme and to establish a formal interface among the user countries for better understanding and coordination of the programme activities and operations

Programme of the Workshop/Training Course

  • System Concept
  • IMO and ICAO Regulations
  • Beacon Specifications
  • Beacon coding and registration policies and procedures
  • Data Distribution procedures
  • Understanding of the COSPAS-SARSAT distress alert formats
  • Guidelines for developing national regulatory policies
  • System testing and exercising
  • Phase out plan for 121.5/243 MHz beacons
  • Future system developments

Selected participants are in positions of managerial or decision making-responsibility at national institutions with programmes and activities in areas related to navigational security and Search And Rescue, in particular, the use of the Cospas-Sarsat system.

Activity resources

United Nations/India Workshop on Satellite-Aided Search and Rescue (Bangalore, India, 18-22 March 2002)

United Nations/United States of America Training Course on Satellite-Aided Search and Rescue, 2-6 February 2004, Florida, USA

United Nations / Australia Training Course on Satellite-Aided Search and Rescue, 14 - 18 March 2005, Canberra, Australia

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