Lockheed Martin Marks 30th Anniversary of First Search and Rescue Hosted Payload on U.S. Weather Satellites

Thirty years ago, the premier launch of the Advanced TIROS-N satellite series ­carried a very special hosted payload aboard – the first Search and Rescue (SAR) payload on a U.S. satellite, NOAA-E. Lockheed Martin (then RCA Astrospace Division) designed and built the satellite.

To date, over 33,000 lives have been saved as a direct result of the Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) capability, and more than 325,000 emergency beacons have been registered in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration database. As of 2012, 26 countries were providers of ground segments for the Cospas-Sarsat system, while 11 countries were user states.

“While NOAA’s weather satellites have indirectly been saving lives for over 50 years by making possible timely forecasts of dangerous weather, the initiation of the Cospas-Sarsat Programme originated the use of satellite technology that enabled direct intervention in the rescue of people in distress,” said Mark Valerio, vice president and general manager of Military Space at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company in Sunnyvale, Calif., who also served as the SAR mechanical integration lead at East Windsor during the Cospas-Sarsat program.

“It was NASA’s vision decades ago, with its ‘missions of opportunity’ that underscored the value of hosted payloads, and the SARSAT program was an early pioneer,” Valerio continued. “Utilizing available space on satellites for small additional payloads added enormous new capabilities, and fostered innovation in satellite missions. Some believe that the notion of hosted payloads is still in its infancy, but our company has been building and integrating them for nearly three decades now and we’ve come to appreciate the benefits, and understand well the challenges and the risks.”

SAR hosted payloads were sent into space as the result of an agreement signed in 1979 by Canada, France, the United States and the former Soviet Union. The agreement established the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme – a satellite-based SAR distress alert detection, location and information distribution system designed to save lives. Cospas-Sarsat provides alerts to search and rescue authorities worldwide. The Cospas-Sarsat system swings into action when a distress beacon is activated in a life-threatening emergency. The beacon is picked up by the satellites equipped with the SARSAT hardware. Satellites downlink the distress data to ground stations and mission control centers that then distribute it to rescue coordination centers.

The United States provided the Search and Rescue Receive Antenna – designed and built by the East Windsor team, which also performed the integration, test and fielding of the system that would also work in conjunction with the Soviet Union’s Cospas satellites. France’s Center for National D'Etudes Spatiales provided the Search and Rescue Processor and Canada’s Department of National Defence developed the Search and Rescue Repeater. In the U.S. the SARSAT system was developed by NASA. Once it became fully functional, its operation was turned over to NOAA where it remains today.

The current constellation of operational SARSAT-equipped polar-orbiting satellites include NOAA-15, -16, -18 and -19 – all Advanced TIROS-N satellites, built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems. When the GOES-R series of satellites – being built by Lockheed Martin – begin to enter service in 2015, all will host the SARSAT payload.


The NOAA-E weather satellite is seen in a cleanroom at the East Windsor, N.J. facility in October 1982 during the spacecraft level vibration test. NOAA-E would carry the first search and rescue hosted payload on a U.S. satellite into space on March 28, 1983.

Additional Payload Information:

  • Over the past 50 years, Lockheed Martin has delivered over 300 payloads
  • Since 2000 we delivered 84 payloads including 10 hosted payloads
  • Thousands of payload subsystem components have been successfully delivered by Lockheed Martin