It’s not often that one gets to be part of a game-changing event. In the search and rescue (SAR) world, all of us are part of life-saving activities and developments every day. Still, NOAA’s decision to commission first-of-its-kind ground stations reminded me of the big picture. I’m struck by the enormity of the Cospas-Sarsat satellite system upgrade that’s underway and excited to be a part of the innovative transformation unfolding around us.

One Giant Step for Cospas-Sarsat

Not since the Cospas-Sarsat global SAR system became fully functional in the early 1980s has there been a change that compares to the introduction of the Medium Earth Orbit Search and Rescue (MEOSAR) satellites. Until now, Cospas-Sarsat has been using Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Geostationary (GEO) satellites. Deploying new satellites at “medium” orbit (between 19,000 and 24,000 km above the earth) altitude will:

  • Significantly decrease signal detection time
  • Dramatically improve location accuracy, and
  • Enable confirmations to users that their distress messages have been received.

In short, MEOSAR will accelerate rescue times, potentially shaving hours off today’s average response time. To prepare for the change, government and response organizations around the world are engaged in the two-to-five-year transition to MEOSAR, sparking innovation to support the change.

MEOSAR-Inspired Innovation

As the agency that operates the SAR satellite-aided tracking system in the U.S., NOAA manages the ground stations, or Local User Terminals (LUTs) that receive satellite signals and relay alert and location data to designated command centers. When NOAA needed to upgrade the LEO ground stations in its region, the agency was reluctant to invest in technology that would be rendered useless once the MEOSAR system is operational.

That’s where McMurdo innovation came in. Working with NOAA, our scientists devised a first-of-its-kind LEO/MEOLUT that will work with both the existing LEOSAR and nascent MEOSAR satellites. Each NOAA LEO/MEO ground station will function as a LEOLUT when a LEO satellite is in view and as a MEOLUT when no LEO satellite is visible and a MEO satellite is present. It’s an elegant, innovative solution that ensures an essential zero down time transition for SAR organizations such as the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Air Force.

A Momentous Time in the SAR Community

McMurdo has been part of the Cospas-Sarsat system since its inception. We uniquely contribute at every step of the SAR process, from manufacturing distress beacons and ground stations to delivering command centers. I’m always proud when we find cost-effective and innovative solutions to improve the life-saving missions and experiences for our customers. I’m also grateful for the reminder to celebrate the innovative MEOSAR system, which is already improving results of search and rescue missions around the world. It’s a momentous time to be part of the SAR community!