New satellite station boosts search and rescue capability

Safe Seas Clean Seas Issue 49, December 2015

Construction has been completed on a new search and rescue satellite receiving station between Taupo and Rotorua – built as part of a joint project by Maritime NZ and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA).
MEOSAR satellite
Maritime New Zealand ©2019
An aerial view of the completed receiving station, near Reporoa, between Taupo and Rotorua.

The site, together with a similar receiving station in Western Australia, has been constructed ahead of the introduction of a new generation of medium-Earth orbit search and rescue (MEOSAR) satellites.

MEOSAR satellites (orbiting at around 20,000 km above the Earth) are replacing the current low-Earth orbit (LEOSAR) satellites (orbiting at between 800–1000 km), which are being phased out over the next four years.

The MEOSAR system will begin operation in 2017, and will significantly boost search and rescue (SAR) capability in the NZ and Australian SAR regions, which together stretch north to the Equator and south to the South Pole, east to half way across the Pacific, and west half way across the Indian Ocean.

US company McMurdo is carrying out the work in New Zealand and Australia. The New Zealand contract, managed by Maritime NZ, is made up of $7.2m for construction of the receiving station and $5.5m in operating costs over the next 11 years.

Distress beacons and locator beacons
Mike Hill and Keith Manch showcase emergency distress beacons, or locator beacons – the new MEOSAR system will more than treble the number of satellites receiving signals from beacons.
Maritime New Zealand ©2019

The two sites will undergo rigorous testing before the MEOSAR system is officially brought online in late 2017 by COSPAS SARSAT, the international coordinating body for global search and rescue.

The six satellite dishes at the new site are covered by domes to protect them from the elements and are designed to be as visually unobtrusive as possible. The receiving station is expected to be officially commissioned in mid-2016.

There are currently 18 MEOSAR satellites operating, compared with five LEOSAR satellites. This means beacon signals will be received more quickly and beacon locations identified with greater accuracy. This will further improve over the next five years as 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.

Once operational, signals received by the new site will be sent to a new mission control centre in Canberra, which will pass them to the appropriate rescue coordination centre. If a beacon is activated in the NZ SAR region, these alerts will go to the RCCNZ in Avalon, in the Hutt Valley, Wellington.

The coverage from the sites in New Zealand and Australia will provide overlapping coverage of both search and rescue regions.

“This is a truly a joint system for New Zealand and Australia – and a key part of the global COSPAS SARSAT system,” Maritime NZ Director Keith Manch says.

“Our two countries are responsible for a huge section of the earth when it comes to search and rescue, and without our joint contribution there would be a significant gap in the network. Beacons can take the ‘search’ out of search and rescue, and the MEOSAR system will dramatically increase the global SAR capability.

“Emergency distress beacons are key equipment for anyone operating at sea, on land and in the air – whether commercially or recreationally – but they can’t operate without sites like this.”

Existing beacons, of which there are 54,000 registered in New Zealand, will not be affected by the change in satellites.

The RCCNZ, part of Maritime NZ, responds to around 550 beacon alerts each year.

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