February 20, 2017


The mission of the international Cospas-Sarsat programme is to locate people in distress, calculate their position and transmit it to emergency responders via a system of emergency locator beacons and satellites relaying distress signals.

A fishing trawler suddenly capsizes off the coast of Brittany. The crew manage to hang on to the boat, but they can’t radio for help. Luckily, they have a life-saving Cospas-Sarsat emergency locator beacon. Activated automatically after the boat keeled over, the beacon sends a distress signal to one of the satellites in the Cospas-Sarsat constellation orbiting the globe. The satellite downlinks the signal to a ground station, which calculates the beacon’s position and forwards it to CNES’s Toulouse Space Centre, one of the Cospas-Sarsat system’s 31 Mission Control Centres (MCCs). The control centre then contacts search-and-rescue teams, who are immediately dispatched to pick up the stricken crew.

Initiated in 1982, Cospas-Sarsat is a global system of radio beacons capable of locating any craft or person in distress, at sea, in the air or on land. Today, more than 1 million Cospas-Sarsat beacons are in operation around the world. They systematically equip commercial airliners, fishing vessels and merchant ships. Founded by France, Canada, the United States and Russia, the Cospas-Sarsat system today counts 42 member nations. From 2018, 26 European Galileo satellites will be equipped with new search-and-rescue instruments to replace the current Cospas-Sarsat system. And the future GPS and Glonass constellations (Glonass is the Russian GPS) will carry identical instruments, rendering the European, U.S. and Russian systems interoperable and making it possible to detect and locate beacons instantly.