NOAA Satellite Plays Key Role in Rescue of Solo Teen Sailor

A NOAA satellite was at the center of an international rescue effort on June 11 when it located the position of 16-year-old sailor Abby Sunderland, stranded in rough seas of the Indian Ocean during her attempt to make a solo voyage around the world.


High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

‘Sky High’ Tech Search & Rescue

NOAA-15, a polar-orbiting satellite — part of the Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking system known as COSPAS-SARSAT— detected the distress signal from an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, or EPIRB, onboard the 40-foot boat Sunderland was sailing.

The NOAA satellite relayed Sunderland’s beacon distress signal to the U.S. Coast Guard's Pacific Area Command in Alameda, Calif. The signal data, processed at the SARSAT Mission Control Center at NOAA's Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Md., determined Sunderland's position. An Australian search plane spotted Sunderland about midway between Africa and Australia and established radio contact with her.

An International Effort

An Indian geostationary satellite captured Sunderland's EPIRB signal first, but could not pinpoint the exact location because of its fixed position in orbit. The satellite, however, was able to transmit information from the signal that made its way to the SARSAT Mission Control Center. NOAA had the beacon's registration on file, and alerted the U.S. Air Force and Coast Guard, which used it to contact Sunderland's family for more specific details on her whereabouts. Shortly thereafter, the NOAA-15 satellite detected Sunderland's precise location.

NOAA's Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Md.

NOAA's Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Md.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

"SARSAT is designed as an international operation, and we saw it work with an international response," said Mary Kicza, assistant administrator of NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service. "We’re relieved this is a happy ending."


NOAA’s polar-orbiting and geostationary satellites, along with Russia’s Cospas spacecraft, are the backbone of the larger COSPAS-SARSAT system. 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.

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.  From there, it is 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.

There are three types of beacons used to transmit distress signals: EPIRBs (for maritime use), Emergency Locator Transmitters (for aviation use), and Personal Locator Beacons (used for land-based applications).

These beacons are sold in various outdoor supply stores, boating supply stores, electronics stores and by online and catalog distributors.

Now in its 28th year, COSPAS-SARSAT has been credited with supporting more than 28,000 rescues worldwide, including 6,357 in the United States and its surrounding waters.

To learn more about the SARSAT program, please visit: www.sarsat.noaa.govNOAA logo.