Cospas-Sarsat has demonstrated that the detection and location of 406 MHz distress beacon signals can be greatly facilitated by global monitoring based on low-altitude spacecraft in near-polar orbits. Complete, yet non continuous coverage of the Earth is achieved using simple emergency beacons operating on 406 MHz to signal a distress. The coverage is not continuous because polar orbiting satellites can only view a portion of the Earth at any given time (see figure at left). Consequently the System cannot produce distress alerts until the satellite is in a position where it can "see" the distress beacon. However, since the satellite onboard 406 MHz processor includes a memory module, the satellite is able to store distress beacon information and rebroadcast it when the satellite comes within view of a LUT, thereby providing global coverage.
Click here to view a map depicting the LEOLUT local visibility area.
As described above, a single satellite, circling the Earth around the poles, eventually views the entire Earth surface. The "orbital plane", or path of the satellite, remains fixed, while the Earth rotates underneath it. At most, it takes only one half rotation of the Earth (i.e. 12 hours) for any location to pass under the orbital plane. With a second satellite, having an orbital plane at right angles to the first, only one quarter of a rotation is required, or 6 hours maximum. Similarly, as more satellites orbit the Earth in different planes, the waiting time is further reduced. The Cospas-Sarsat System design constellation is four satellites which provide a typical waiting time of less than one hour at mid-latitudes.
The LEOSAR system calculates the location of distress events using Doppler processing techniques. Doppler processing is based upon the principle that the frequency of the distress beacon, as "heard" by the satellite instrument, is affected by the relative velocity of the satellite with respect to the beacon. By monitoring the change of the beacon frequency of the received beacon signal and knowing the exact position of the satellite, the LUT is able to calculate the location of the beacon.