Search and rescue: important upgrades of NZ satellite station begin

16 August 2022

Better response for distress beacons in 30m square km of SW Pacific.

Important upgrades at New Zealand’s search and rescue satellite Earth station begin today (August 16).

The Earth station, halfway between Rotorua and Taupō, is the vital link between our country’s Rescue Coordination Centre NZ (RCCNZ) and the search and rescue satellite network, and provides the initial processing of signals from distress beacons.

a paddock with 6 radar domes, 3 utes and a small building in the middle
Photo credit: Maritime NZ
Important upgrades at New Zealand’s search and rescue satellite Earth station.

The changes will ensure better responses when distress beacons are activated anywhere on land, sea or air in New Zealand’s huge search and rescue region – 30 million square kilometres of the south west Pacific, from near the equator to the South Pole, half way to Australia and halfway to Chile.

The upgrades being made will:

  • improve the accuracy of emergency beacons, especially in water where a beacon’s aerial swinging and water interfering with its signal makes pinpointing a beacon’s location more difficult
  • create faster and steadier links up to and down from search and rescue satellites and the Earth station
  • detect and track an aircraft’s beacon immediately the aircraft has a dramatic loss of altitude
  • “future proof” for new beacon functions such as sending messages back to beacons acknowledging receipt of your beacon activation.

Maritime NZ’s Deputy Chief Executive Response, Security and Safety Services, Nigel Clifford, said software upgrades, testing, and coordination with Australian search and rescue authorities will follow, expecting completion by December in time for summer.

“With such a huge search and rescue region, all improvements to communication are most welcome and can save lives,” Mr Clifford said.

The work is part of a step-by-step, global upgrade of the search and rescue satellite system, which also includes the first launches of new, more capable satellites that will over time replace the existing 50 search and rescue satellites.

Editors: background facts, some technical information and graphics

RCCNZ   Maritime NZ runs the Rescue Coordination Centre NZ. The operations room is staffed 24/7, 365 days a year. It coordinates all major maritime and aviation search and rescue missions within New Zealand’s search and rescue region and all land, sea and air missions arising from distress beacons activated in our region.
1,200 Approximate number of search and rescue incidents RCCNZ responds to each year. Not all start with a distress beacon being activated.
PLB Personal locator beacon – small beacon carried by a person, activated manually.
EPIRB Emergency position indicating radio beacon – designed for vessels, some can “float free” from a sinking vessel, some can activate automatically on contact with water, and all can be activated manually.
ELT Emergency location transmitter – aircraft emergency distress beacons, activate automatically.
LUT Local user terminal or, a satellite Earth station.
Cospas-Sarsat The international organisation of 45 countries that runs the global search and rescue satellite network. It is based in Montreal, Canada.
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