Trans-Tasman satellite system to boost search and rescue

Safe Seas Clean Seas Issue 47, December 2014 - January 2015

Construction begins in February on a new satellite-receiving ground station between Taupo and Rotorua as part of a joint MNZ and Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) project to boost search and rescue (SAR) capability in the region.

MNZ has signed a joint contract with United States company McMurdo Group’s Techno-Sciences Inc to build receiving stations in New Zealand and Western Australia, to pick up signals from Medium-altitude Earth Orbit Search and Rescue (MEOSAR) satellites. There will also be a new mission control centre in Canberra.

These satellites orbit at around 20,000km above the Earth and are used for SAR. They will replace the current Low-altitude Earth Orbit Search and Rescue (LEOSAR) satellites (orbiting at 800–1,000km), which are being phased out over the next four years.

MEOSAR satellites will give global coverage of distress beacon signals in 5 minutes, compared with the current 45 minutes.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

Existing distress beacons, of which 46,000 are registered in New Zealand, will not be affected by the change.

Six satellite dishes will be built at the New Zealand site, with construction scheduled to be completed by the end of 2015. The receiving station is expected to be commissioned towards the end of 2016 and operational by 2017.

The New Zealand contract is made up of $7.2 million for construction of the receiving station and $5.5 million in operating costs over the next 11 years.

There are currently 16 MEOSAR satellites orbiting Earth, compared with five LEOSAR satellites. MEOSAR satellites receive beacon signals more quickly and identify beacon locations with greater accuracy.

This will further improve over the next five years, when the number of MEOSAR satellites is expected to increase to more than 50, ensuring several satellites will be in view at all times from anywhere on Earth.

Beacon signals will pass through the MEOSAR satellites to the two ground stations, then be processed through the Canberra mission control centre and relayed to the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ), triggering SAR responses. RCCNZ, which is part of MNZ, responds to about 550 beacon alerts each year.

“The joint investment by New Zealand and Australia in the MEOSAR project is another example of the close cooperation between our two countries in what is a vital area of operation,” MNZ Director Keith Manch said.

“The change is necessary because without a MEOSAR receiving station, New Zealand would effectively lose its ability to respond to distress beacons once the LEOSAR satellites are phased out. But the change brings with it significant improvements to SAR capability.”

AMSA Chief Executive Officer Mick Kinley said Australia and New Zealand’s ground stations would work cooperatively to achieve overlapping coverage of the two countries’ search and rescue regions.

“This offers a high degree of resilience, in the event of a system outage, which would be expensive for either country to achieve alone,” Mick said. “AMSA is pleased to continue this collaborative regional approach with New Zealand.”

New Zealand’s SAR region extends from just below the Equator to the South Pole, halfway across the Tasman, and east to halfway to South America. The MEOSAR satellites will give global coverage of distress beacon signals in 5 minutes, compared with the current 45 minutes.

The global search and rescue satellite system is managed by the International Cospas-Sarsat organisation, which sets standards for beacons, satellite equipment and ground stations, enabling a truly global response to SAR.

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