Two small satellites, scheduled for launch in 2018, will provide the Coast Guard with the opportunity to test the effectiveness of satellite communications in supporting Arctic search and rescue missions.
These satellites, or “cubesats,” are capable of detecting transmissions from emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs), which are carried on board vessels to broadcast their position if in distress. The Coast Guard will deploy the cubesats in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate’s Polar Scout program, the Air Force Operationally Responsive Space Office, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
NOAA operates a group of satellites to detect EPIRB transmissions in the Arctic but is currently in the process of replacing that system. DHS and the Coast Guard are using the opportunity to see if cubesats could help augment that system while NOAA deploys the new satellites.
The satellites consist of 10-centimeter cubes that are designed to carry small payloads and can be stacked to make a custom-sized vehicle. Because satellite electronics have increased in capability while decreasing in size, equipment that used to require a larger vehicle can be housed in a cubesat at a much lower cost. Normally, a large number of cubesats are launched at once, and the cost is split among the vehicles’ owners to further save money. Sometimes, a mission launching a large satellite will have extra space to accommodate a cubesat at significantly lower cost as well.
Each Polar Scout cubesat will pass over the North Pole every 90 to 100 minutes and will be able to detect EPIRB signals from vessels in the Arctic for about 12 minutes on each orbit. The cubesats will circle the earth 15 or 16 times a day, providing more than three hours of search and rescue coverage in the Arctic daily.
Millennium Engineering and Integration is preparing the satellites for launch in mid-2018 with the help of Space Dynamics Laboratory and Raytheon.
The satellites, scheduled to be launched later this year, will only be proof-of-concept and won’t be relied upon for actual operations, Coast Guard spokesperson Lt. Jr. Grade Emma Lutton said. They will be tested to monitor the Arctic.
US Southern Command has worked with Planet Labs — a startup that maintains a constellation of over 175 microsatellites that image the Earth each day — to track unscheduled military exercises and monitor drug cartels.