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).
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.
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 towards the end of 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 said.
“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.
The global search and rescue satellite system is managed by the International Cospas-Sarsat organisation.
A consortium of Russia, the United States, Canada and France formed the organisation in 1982. Since then 41 participants – including New Zealand – have joined to provide satellite tracking equipment, with 40,000 people rescued to date.
Cospas-Sarsat sets standards for beacons, satellite equipment, and ground stations enabling a truly global approach to search and rescue.
The current global search and rescue satellite system makes use of two types of satellite – LEOSAR satellites and geostationary, or GEO, satellites, that are stationary above the equator. Because of New Zealand’s distance from the equator, the GEO satellites are low on the horizon, which can limit their line-of-sight visibility, particularly in mountainous terrain. That makes LEO satellites important, but these are limited in number and not always over New Zealand, meaning there can be delays between a beacon activation and its detection by a LEO satellite.