Aug. 2002 Space Place

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August 2002 Edition

Satellites to the Rescue!

A ship on the ocean is swamped by a giant wave. A small airplane loses power and crash lands on a mountain field. A snowmobiler in Alaska breaks a tread and is lost far from civilization. How do the brave people who rescue folks in peril find out where they are?

Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking, called SARSAT for short, uses two types of satellites to help people (and their pets!). Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites, nicknamed "GOES," fly in place. They never stray from their spots above Earth. Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellites, called "POES," are in constant motion. They orbit Earth several times a day. The main job of these spacecraft is to track environmental conditions around the world. But GOES and POES also hear special distress signals from ships, planes, and individuals. The satellites send the information to a control center in Suitland, Maryland. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the U.S. Government, operates the center. They learn who's in danger and where the emergency is. Then they send the Coast Guard or the Air Force to save the day!

Ships, airplanes and people use different kinds of equipment to transmit emergency signals. All these devices broadcast distress messages to GOES and POES. Personal Locator Beacons for individuals are available only in Alaska, but soon may be sold in the rest of the United States. Backpackers and others who travel to remote areas could carry these devices in case they get into trouble.

NASA provided the satellites used for SARSAT and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operates them.  SARSAT has helped to locate and rescue more than 12,800 people worldwide and 4,300 people in the United States. The Air Force and Coast Guard also rescued dogs and other pets that were traveling with their families when disaster struck!

Find out more about SARSAT
at http://  Also check out The Space Place Web site at to learn how these satellites orbit Earth and how GOES can hang over one spot all the time!

This article was written by Eric Elkins and provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) system helps find people in trouble and send rescuers to help.