NOAA Satellites Aid in the Rescue of 295 People in 2010

In 2010, NOAA satellites were critical in the rescues of 295 people from life-threatening situations throughout the United States and its surrounding waters. The satellites picked up distress signals from emergency beacons carried by downed pilots, shipwrecked boaters and stranded hikers, and relayed the information about their location to first responders on the ground.

NOAA’s polar-orbiting and geostationary satellites, along with Russia’s COSPAS spacecraft, are part of the international Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking system, called COSPAS-SARSAT. This system uses a network of satellites to quickly detect and locate distress signals from emergency beacons onboard aircraft and boats, and from smaller, handheld personal locator beacons called PLBs.

Alaska had the most people rescued last year with 77, followed by Florida with 37, and West Virginia with 17, who were aboard a downed Army Reserve helicopter.

“With each rescue, the COSPAS-SARSAT system performs the way it was intended — as a real, life-saving network,” said Chris O’Connors, program manager for NOAA SARSAT.

When a NOAA satellite finds the location of a distress signal within the United States or its surrounding waters, the information is relayed to the SARSAT Mission Control Center based at NOAA’s Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Md. From there, the information is quickly sent to a Rescue Coordination Center, operated by either the U.S. Air Force, for land rescues, or the U.S. Coast Guard, for water rescues.

Now in its 29th year, COSPAS-SARSAT has been credited with supporting more than 28,000 rescues worldwide, including more than 6,500 in the United States and its surrounding waters.

2010 SARSAT Rescue Highlights
Of the 295 saves last year, 180 people were rescued from the water, 43 from aviation incidents, and 72 in land situations where they used their PLBs.
In a joint U.S. Coast Guard-Navy operation, a man was rescued from his capsized boat, 250 miles off of Cape Hatteras, N.C.

A man’s car veered off a snowy Colorado road in a blizzard and became stuck. With no cell phone signal, his PLB was the only way to contact authorities for help.

Two people with a seven-member dog team were aboard a helicopter that crashed in Alaska. All lives were saved.

Although not included in the 295 count, Abby Sunderland, a California teen attempting to set a new record for youngest solo sail around the world, was rescued when she activated her emergency beacons. A storm took her mast — which also left her satellite phone inoperable — and left her boat adrift in the southern Indian Ocean over 2,000 miles from shore. Hers is among the non-U.S. rescues in 2010; those numbers will officially be released later this year.

By law, owners of emergency beacons are required to register them with NOAA at: That registration information often helps provide better or faster assistance to people in distress. It may also provide information about the location of the emergency situation, how many people need assistance, what type of help may be needed and other ways to contact the owner.

NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth’s environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Visit us online at or on Facebook at

On the Web:
Search and Rescue Satellite-aided Tracking (SARSAT):

Abby Sunderland Rescue / Coast Guard Blog: