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Why We Celebrate Search and Rescue Technologies on 4/06

Why We Celebrate Search and Rescue Technologies on 4/06

Today (4/06), we celebrate the special radio frequency transmitted by emergency beacons to the international search and rescue network. 

This 406 MHz frequency, used only for search and rescue, can be “heard” by satellites hundreds of miles above the ground! The satellites then “forward” the location of the beacon back to Earth, helping first responders locate people in distress worldwide, whether from a plane crash, a boating accident or other emergencies.

Our Search and Rescue office, based out of our Goddard Space Flight Center, researches and develops emergency beacon technology, passing the technology to companies who manufacture the beacons, making them available to the public at retail stores. The beacons are designed for personal, maritime and aviation use.

The search and rescue network, Cospas-Sarsat, is an international program that ensures the compatibility of distress alert services with the needs of users. Its current space segment relies on instruments onboard low-Earth and geosynchronous orbiting satellites, hundreds to thousands of miles above us. 

Space instruments forward distress signals to the search and rescue ground segment, which is operated by partner organizations around the world! They manage specific regions of the ground network. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates the region containing the United States, which reaches across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as well as parts of Central and South America.

NOAA notifies organizations that coordinate search and rescue efforts of a 406 MHz distress beacon’s activation and location. Within the U.S., the U.S. Air Force responds to land-based emergencies and the U.S. Coast Guard responds to water-based emergencies. Local public service organizations like police and fire departments, as well as civilian volunteers, serve as first responders.

Here at NASA, we research, design and test search and rescue instruments and beacons to refine the existing network. Aeronautical beacon tests took place at our Langley Research Center in 2015. Using a 240-foot-high structure originally used to test Apollo spacecraft, our Search and Rescue team crashed three planes to test the survivability of these beacons, developing guidelines for manufacturers and installation into aircraft.

In the future, first responders will rely on a new constellation of search and rescue instruments on GPS systems on satellites in medium-Earth orbit, not hundreds, but THOUSANDS of miles overhead. These new instruments will enable the search and rescue network to locate a distress signal more quickly than the current system and achieve accuracy an order of magnitude better, from a half mile to approximately 300 feet. Our Search and Rescue office is developing second-generation 406 MHz beacons that make full use of this new system.

We will also incorporate these second-generation beacons into the Orion Crew Survival System. The Advanced Next-Generation Emergency Locator (ANGEL) beacons will be attached to astronaut life preservers. After splashdown, if the Orion crew exits the capsule due to an emergency, these beacons will make sure we know the exact location of floating astronauts! Our Johnson Space Center is testing this technology for used in future human spaceflight and exploration missions.

If you’re the owner of an emergency beacon, remember that beacon registration is free, easy and required by law. 

To register your beacon, visit:

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