Why We Celebrate Search and Rescue Technologies on 4/06

Today (4/06), we celebrate the special radio frequency transmitted by emergency beacons to the international search and rescue network. 

This 406 MHz frequency, used only for search and rescue, can be “heard” by satellites hundreds of miles above the ground! The satellites then “forward” the location of the beacon back to Earth, helping first responders locate people in distress worldwide, whether from a plane crash, a boating accident or other emergencies.

Our Search and Rescue office, based out of our Goddard Space Flight Center, researches and develops emergency beacon technology, passing the technology to companies who manufacture the beacons, making them available to the public at retail stores. The beacons are designed for personal, maritime and aviation use.

The search and rescue network, Cospas-Sarsat, is an international program that ensures the compatibility of distress alert services with the needs of users. Its current space segment relies on instruments onboard low-Earth and geosynchronous orbiting satellites, hundreds to thousands of miles above us. 

Space instruments forward distress signals to the search and rescue ground segment, which is operated by partner organizations around the world! They manage specific regions of the ground network. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates the region containing the United States, which reaches across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as well as parts of Central and South America.

NOAA notifies organizations that coordinate search and rescue efforts of a 406 MHz distress beacon’s activation and location. Within the U.S., the U.S. Air Force responds to land-based emergencies and the U.S. Coast Guard responds to water-based emergencies. Local public service organizations like police and fire departments, as well as civilian volunteers, serve as first responders.

Here at NASA, we research, design and test search and rescue instruments and beacons to refine the existing network. Aeronautical beacon tests took place at our Langley Research Center in 2015. Using a 240-foot-high structure originally used to test Apollo spacecraft, our Search and Rescue team crashed three planes to test the survivability of these beacons, developing guidelines for manufacturers and installation into aircraft.

In the future, first responders will rely on a new constellation of search and rescue instruments on GPS systems on satellites in medium-Earth orbit, not hundreds, but THOUSANDS of miles overhead. These new instruments will enable the search and rescue network to locate a distress signal more quickly than the current system and achieve accuracy an order of magnitude better, from a half mile to approximately 300 feet. Our Search and Rescue office is developing second-generation 406 MHz beacons that make full use of this new system.

We will also incorporate these second-generation beacons into the Orion Crew Survival System. The Advanced Next-Generation Emergency Locator (ANGEL) beacons will be attached to astronaut life preservers. After splashdown, if the Orion crew exits the capsule due to an emergency, these beacons will make sure we know the exact location of floating astronauts! Our Johnson Space Center is testing this technology for used in future human spaceflight and exploration missions.

If you’re the owner of an emergency beacon, remember that beacon registration is free, easy and required by law. 

To register your beacon, visit: beaconregistration.noaa.gov

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Dead Star Circled by Light

An isolated neutron star in the Small Magellanic Cloud

Hubble view of the surroundings of a hidden neutron star in the Small Magellanic Cloud

MUSE view of the surroundings of a hidden neutron star in the Small Magellanic Cloud

X-ray view of the surroundings of a hidden neutron star in the Small Magellanic Cloud 

The Small Magellanic Cloud

ESOcast 155 Light: Dead Star Circled by Light (4K UHD)
ESOcast 155 Light: Dead Star Circled by Light (4K UHD)
Zooming in on a neutron star in the Small Magellanic Cloud

Zooming in on a neutron star in the Small Magellanic Cloud

MUSE data points to isolated neutron star beyond our galaxy

New images from ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and other telescopes reveal a rich landscape of stars and glowing clouds of gas in one of our closest neighbouring galaxies, the Small Magellanic Cloud. The pictures have allowed astronomers to identify an elusive stellar corpse buried among filaments of gas left behind by a 2000-year-old supernova explosion. The MUSE instrument was used to establish where this elusive object is hiding, and existing Chandra X-ray Observatory data confirmed its identity as an isolated neutron star.

Spectacular new pictures, created from images from both ground- and space-based telescopes [1], tell the story of the hunt for an elusive missing object hidden amid a complex tangle of gaseous filaments in the Small Magellanic Cloud, about 200 000 light-years from Earth.

New data from the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile has revealed a remarkable ring of gas in a system called 1E 0102.2-7219, expanding slowly within the depths of numerous other fast-moving filaments of gas and dust left behind after a supernova explosion. This discovery allowed a team led by Frédéric Vogt, an ESO Fellow in Chile, to track down the first ever isolated neutron star with low magnetic field located beyond our own Milky Way galaxy.

The team noticed that the ring was centred on an X-ray source that had been noted years before and designated p1. The nature of this source had remained a mystery. In particular, it was not clear whether p1 actually lies inside the remnant or behind it. It was only when the ring of gas — which includes both neon and oxygen — was observed with MUSE that the science team noticed it perfectly circled p1. The coincidence was too great, and they realised that p1 must lie within the supernova remnant itself. Once p1’s location was known, the team used existing X-ray observations of this target from the Chandra X-ray Observatory to determine that it must be an isolated neutron star, with a low magnetic field.

In the words of Frédéric Vogt: “If you look for a point source, it doesn’t get much better than when the Universe quite literally draws a circle around it to show you where to look.

When massive stars explode as supernovae, they leave behind a curdled web of hot gas and dust, known as a supernova remnant. These turbulent structures are key to the redistribution of the heavier elements — which are cooked up by massive stars as they live and die — into the interstellar medium, where they eventually form new stars and planets.

Typically barely ten kilometres across, yet weighing more than our Sun, isolated neutron stars with low magnetic fields are thought to be abundant across the Universe, but they are very hard to find because they only shine at X-ray wavelengths [2]. The fact that the confirmation of p1 as an isolated neutron star was enabled by optical observations is thus particularly exciting.

Co-author Liz Bartlett, another ESO Fellow in Chile, sums up this discovery: “This is the first object of its kind to be confirmed beyond the Milky Way, made possible using MUSE as a guidance tool. We think that this could open up new channels of discovery and study for these elusive stellar remains.


[1] The image combines data from the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and the orbiting the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and NASA Chandra X-Ray Observatory.
[2] Highly-magnetic spinning neutron stars are called pulsars. They emit strongly at radio and other wavelengths and are easier to find, but they are only a small fraction of all the neutron stars predicted to exist.

More Information

This research was presented in a paper entitled “Identification of the central compact object in the young supernova remnant 1E 0102.2-7219”, by Frédéric P. A. Vogt et al., in the journal Nature Astronomy.

The team is composed of Frédéric P. A. Vogt (ESO, Santiago, Chile & ESO Fellow), Elizabeth S. Bartlett (ESO, Santiago, Chile & ESO Fellow), Ivo R. Seitenzahl (University of New South Wales Canberra, Australia), Michael A. Dopita (Australian National University, Canberra, Australia), Parviz Ghavamian (Towson University, Baltimore, Maryland, USA), Ashley J. Ruiter (University of New South Wales Canberra & ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics, Australia) and Jason P. Terry (University of Georgia, Athens, USA).

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It has 15 Member States: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile and with Australia as a strategic partner. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope and its world-leading Very Large Telescope Interferometer as well as two survey telescopes, VISTA working in the infrared and the visible-light VLT Survey Telescope. ESO is also a major partner in two facilities on Chajnantor, APEX and ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre Extremely Large Telescope, the ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.


    Frédéric P. A. Vogt
    ESO Fellow
    Santiago, Chile
    Email: fvogt@eso.org

    Elizabeth S. Bartlett
    ESO Fellow
    Santiago, Chile
    Email: ebartlet@eso.org

    Richard Hook
    ESO Public Information Officer
    Garching bei München, Germany
    Tel: +49 89 3200 6655
    Cell: +49 151 1537 3591
    Email: rhook@eso.org

    Source: ESO/News

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