Weather satellite also helps fishermen in distress

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Belly-land a plane on the North Pole? Capsize a boat in 50-foot sea swells outside VHF radio range? For help, call NOAA-11, America's newest satellite.

Launched Saturday from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the newcomer in advanced weather satellites serves as a search-and-rescue aid as well as helping track hurricanes, forest fires, and Earth's ozone. The satellite is managed by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In July of this year, an international satellite search-and-rescue program called COSPAS/SARSAT was signed by the United States, Canada, France, and the Soviet Union.

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The program - which relies on two Soviet satellites and two US satellites, including the new NOAA-11 - has saved 1,150 lives and millions of dollars during 12 years of testing and development.

Under the system, a plane or ship in distress sends off a signal with a special emergency beacon. The four search-and-rescue satellites detect the beacon's transmission and relay the signal to ground stations.

The beacon's location is pinpointed and updated each time the satellite passes over the plane or ship. Finally, the search-and-rescue agency closest to the distressed craft is located, and the rescue made.

The entire process can take less than eight hours, at great financial and personal savings. ``We spend $900 to $3,000 in fuel per hour during a rescue,'' says Chuck Caldwell, Alaskan Search and Rescue Aviator. ``With the aid of the satellite system, my job would be a whole lot cheaper and more effective.''

Besides its use in the COSPAS/SARSAT program, improved instrumentation will allow the satellite to monitor ozone absorption from sun radiation and radiation coming off Earth's surface.

``The information from NOAA-11, combined with data from her predecessor, NOAA-9, will for the first time provide us with long-term global ozone trends and mapping,'' says Dr. Krishna Rao of NOAA.

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