The basic Cospas-Sarsat concept is illustrated in the figure below.
The System is composed of:
Cospas-Sarsat has demonstrated that the detection and location of 406 MHz and 121.5 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 non continuous aspect of the coverage occurs because the polar orbiting satellites can only view a portion of the earth at any given time. Consequently the System cannot produce distress alerts until the satellite is in a position where it can "see" the distress beacon. However, since the 406 MHz satellite 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. With the older type of beacons operating at 121.5 MHz, the System coverage is neither global nor continuous because detection of he distress depends on the availability of a ground receiving station in the satellite field of view at the same time that the satellite receives the beacon signal.
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.
Cospas-Sarsat has also demonstrated that the current generation of Cospas-Sarsat type approved beacons which operate at 406 MHz can be detected by monitoring search and rescue instruments on board geostationary satellites. The GEOSAR system consists of 406 MHz repeaters carried on board various geostationary satellites, and the associated ground facilities called GEOLUTs which process the satellite signal.
As a GEOSAR satellite remains fixed relative to the Earth, there is no Doppler effect on the received frequency and Doppler radio location positioning techniques cannot be used to locate distress beacons. To provide rescuers with beacon position information, such information must be either:
Cospas-Sarsat has demonstrated that the GEOSAR and LEOSAR system capabilities are complementary. For example the GEOSAR system can provide almost immediate alerting in the footprint of the GEOSAR satellite, whereas the LEOSAR system: