Satellite tech used in sea rescue

In a dramatic rescue reminiscent of the hit movie "A Perfect Storm," U.S. satellites in the international Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking Program (Cospas-Sarsat) helped pluck six fisherman from the icy Atlantic off North Carolina recently.

The U.S. mission control center for the Cospas-Sarsat system recently began upgrading its entire computer system, and the system's increased capacity aided in speeding data from the lost ship to rescue teams, according to NOAA officials.

On Jan. 6, satellites operated by the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its partners in the Cospas-Sarsat system detected a distress signal from the Mediterranean Sea II , a 53-foot fishing boat adrift in rough seas 50 miles southeast of Cape Fear, N.C.

As the vessel foundered, aflame in both the engine room and electrical system and taking on water, the six-man crew activated a position-indicating radio beacon. The signal was picked up by a NOAA Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) and detected by a Cospas-Sarsat station in Chile, which then relayed it to the U.S. mission control center at NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service in Suitland, Md.

The center notified the Coast Guard Atlantic Area Command in Portsmouth, Va., and three search and rescue air crews retrieved the fishermen from crests running 10 to 15 feet high with sustained winds of 25 mph.

Without the emergency beacon and the satellites honing in, the fishermen "would have had a very tough time ever being found. They had lost all electrical power and [the] ship was dead in the water," said Lt. j.g Dan Karlson, the Sarsat technical affairs officer. "They had managed to drop their anchor, but when that electrical and engine room fire occurred, they had no other means of communicating with [the] outside world." The Cospas-Sarsat system uses a constellation of satellites to locate emergency beacons on vessels and aircraft in distress, according to Karlson. GOES, which orbits the Earth from pole to pole, can detect distress signals instantly.

The U.S. mission control center began replacing its computer system — which includes machines that range from three to five years old — in September, said Sam Baker, chief of the center. A planned switch to a frame relay routing construction will boost the center's computing speed, reliability and data-analysis capability, Baker said.

In the Cospas-Sarsat worldwide system, emergency signals are gathered at the U.S. mission control center, and then are automatically sent to rescue forces around the world. More than 12,000 lives have been saved worldwide since the system became operational in 1982.

A Russian COSPAS satellite provided the first Doppler weather report for the rescue teams on Jan. 6, and local tracking stations in Spain, Australia, Canada and Japan contributed location information.

In the United States, about 78,000 emergency beacons of the type used by the Mediterranean Sea II are in use on boats ranging from private yachts to commercial sea-going vessels, Karlson said.

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