A few years ago I was at my office desk in the middle of a hectic day when the phone rang. 'This is AMSA,' the voice said, 'we have a report that the EPIRB on your yacht has been activated about 600 nm off the coast.' 'What? It couldn't have!' I spluttered, 'It was in the marina this morning!'
'Weeell,' came the slow reply, 'it was reported to us by the Indonesians, who picked up the signal first. We'll get back to you after we receive information from more satellites.'
I knew there were workmen on the boat that morning, and supposed they had accidentally (and carelessly) activated the beacon.
Sure enough, about three hours later AMSA phoned again to say that they had pinpointed the yacht accurately. But it was a lesson to me that, if we ever needed to let off that EPIRB, an accurate knowledge of our whereabouts would not be an instantaneous thing.
But it's getting better!
The good news is that European Space Agency (ESA) has completed two new ground stations enabling its Galileo satellites to join the international Cospas-Sarsat search and rescue system.
The Maspalomas station on the Spanish island Gran Canaria, off the coast of north-west Africa, was activated in June while the Svalbard site in the Norwegian Arctic went online last week.
The two stations enabled the latest two Galileo navigation satellites to join an international test campaign for a new expansion of the world’s oldest and largest satellite-based rescue system, Cospas-Sarsat.
Satellites participating in the system relay SOS signals automatically transmitted by dedicated beacons on ships, planes or yachts in distress to the ground stations within their reach, from where the information is further promptly relayed to search and rescue forces. Since starting its operations some 30 years ago, the system has helped to save the lives of thousands of people.
The new ESA stations are both equipped to support new instruments on-board the satellites designed to improve coverage and response times of the search and rescue systems.
'The Galileo satellites, tested in combination with the same search and rescue payloads on Russian Glonass satellites as well as compatible repeaters on a pair of US GPS satellites, showed an ability to pinpoint simulated emergency beacons down to an accuracy of 2 to 5km in a matter of minutes,' said ESA’s Galileo search and rescue engineer Igor Stojkovic.
'Our in-orbit validation tests so far have been in line with expectation and beyond, giving us a lot of confidence in the performance of the final system,' he said.
The second pair of Europe’s Galileo satellites – launched together on 12 October 2012 – are the first of the constellation to host search and rescue payloads.