USCG launches satellites for Arctic search and rescue

(Credit: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons)

On 3 December 2018, the US Coast Guard (USCG) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) launched two CubeSats (miniature satellites) into space as part of their Polar Scout project – an initiative designed to gauge the efficacy of space-based sensors in supporting Arctic search and rescue.

The two small CubeSats, named Yukon and Kodiak, were deployed in a low-earth polar orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. There was a total of 64 satellites from 17 different countries carried to orbit as part of the mission, which is the single largest rideshare ever from a US-based launch vehicle.

The shoebox-sized CubeSats are being trialled as a “capability bridge” between the 20-year-old search-and-rescue (SAR) technology in use today and its future successor.

“CubeSats serve as a much smaller, more cost-efficient solution that can be easily implemented over a short period of time,” explained Jon McEntee, director of Border Immigration and Maritime at the DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate (S&T).

According to a statement from the USCG, the use of small and cheap satellites could have a significant impact as SAR missions grow more complex. Potential applications include improving communication in the remote Arctic environment, monitoring large areas for illegal activity, and helping to locate people lost at sea.

The devices could also reduce the amount of time and resources spent on intensive searches via aircraft and cut the risks associated with placing human operators into risky situations.

In the 18 months leading up to lift off, DHS S&T built the pair of CubeSats, which were designed specifically to detect 406 MHz emergency distress beacons. Meanwhile the USCG Research and Development Centre deployed two ground stations – one in Connecticut and one in Alaska – to receive signals from Yukon and Kodiak during the trial.

DHS will begin testing and demonstrations using emergency distress beacons in the Arctic beginning early next year and continuing through the summer.