USA TODAY International Edition

Satellites can track hurricanes – and save people

- Dinah Voyles Pulver

Imagine being in a boat miles from shore when the engine fails, or getting lost in a remote spot while hiking in the Rocky Mountains. Having a beacon or transmitte­r that sends a distress signal via satellite could mean the difference between life and death.

The same satellites that send compelling images when massive hurricanes approach land or huge icebergs break off in Antarctica also play a crucial role in helping to find and rescue people from potentiall­y life- threatenin­g situations like these.

Activating a device that sends an emergency signal can mean the difference between a search that takes a few hours or a search that could take days.

Last year, satellite technology helped rescue 397 people throughout the nation and surroundin­g waterways, according to informatio­n provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheri­c Administra­tion and the National Aeronautic­s and Space Administra­tion. That’s 67 more than in 2021, but below the record high of 421 U. S. rescues in 2019.

How satellites help rescue people

When a lost hiker or a sinking boater turns on an emergency distress beacon, it sends a signal that can be detected by the global Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking system.

The program “truly takes the ‘ search’ out of search and rescue,” said Steve Volz, at NOAA’s Satellite and Informatio­n Service.

Distress signals beamed from aircraft, boats and handheld personal locator beacons are detected by a network of U. S. and internatio­nal spacecraft and used to send rescuers.

Since its beginnings in 1982, the network has supported more than 50,000 rescues worldwide.

When a satellite picks up a distress signal, it’s relayed to NOAA’s Satellite Operations in Suitland, Maryland, then dispatched to coordinati­on centers staffed by the Air Force for land rescues or the Coast Guard for water rescues.

Water rescues occur most often

Of the 397 rescues last year, 275 were water- related, while 42 were from downed aircraft. Personal locator beacons were used in 80 land rescues.

The 106 rescues in Florida topped the list. Fifty- six were in Alaska and 20 in Utah. The rescues included:

● A group of 17 hikers lifted to safety after being stranded on a backcountr­y hike in Sandthrax Canyon, Utah, thanks to a personal beacon.

● Seven rescued in November near Bethel, Alaska, after the Alaska Rescue Coordinati­on Center got the coordinate­s of a commercial plane forced to land on a frozen lake when its engine failed.

● A man who grabbed his life raft and activated a beacon in August when his boat capsized and sank off the coast of New Smyrna Beach, Florida. He was lifted to safety by a Coast Guard helicopter.

How to buy a beacon

Emergency transmitte­rs and beacons, which don’t rely on cellular networks, range in price and are sold online and at outdoor stores. Registerin­g a beacon with NOAA is required by law.

Since its investigat­ion into the sinking of the El Faro shipping vessel in 2017, the National Transporta­tion Safety Board has recommende­d at least four times that the Coast Guard require emergency beacons for crew members on ocean- going vessels.

The “lifesaving promise of PLBs ( personal locator beacons) cannot be overstated,” board chair Jennifer Homendy said last fall.

In December, Apple introduced a feature in its iPhone 14 and 14 Pro that allows users to signal a satellite in an emergency.

Future potential

NASA used similar technology to track the Artemis I Orion Capsule when it splashed down into the Pacific Ocean in December. The agency stated the technology also will be essential for future moon missions by astronauts. In coordinati­on with other systems, it could provide distress location services for missions on the lunar service and provide internet- like capabiliti­es for humans stationed on the moon.

 ?? GERALD HERBERT/ AP ?? The capsized lift boat Seacor Power is shown seven miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday. The vessel capsized during a storm last week.
GERALD HERBERT/ AP The capsized lift boat Seacor Power is shown seven miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday. The vessel capsized during a storm last week.

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