Coast Guard Deploys CubeSats for Arctic EPIRB Coverage

Image courtesy USCG RDT&E

Published Dec 3, 2018 7:36 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Coast Guard's Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) Program, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate, launched two 6U CubeSats from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California on Monday. The launch was part of the Coast Guard's Polar Scout project, which will evaluate the effectiveness of mini-satellites for supporting Arctic search and rescue missions. 

“The Polar Scout project presents an opportunity to evaluate the most efficient way to ensure that the United States can project surface presence in the Arctic when and where it is needed while filling an immediate search and rescue capability gap in these remote areas,” said Jim Knight, the Coast Guard deputy assistant commandant for acquisition, in a keynote speech at the launch ceremony. 

The two shoebox-sized CubeSats, dubbed Yukon and Kodiak, were launched into a low-earth polar orbit on a "rideshare" with dozens of  other spacecraft from 17 nations. 

The Coast Guard's CubeSats were developed as a potential bridge between the existing, 20-year-old SAR satcom architecture and its future successor. Compared with full-fledged traditional satellites, they are a much smaller, more economical solution, and can be easily implemented over a short period of time. 

In the 18 months leading up to the launch, DHS S&T handled the fabrication of Yukon and Kodiak, which are specifically designed to detect 406 MHz emergency distress beacons. At the same time, the Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) deployed two ground stations – one at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut and one at University of Alaska Fairbanks – using an off-the-shelf architecture. The ground stations will receive all of the signals from the CubeSats during the demonstration. At the CGA ground station, cadets will have the opportunity to send and receive data to and from the Polar Scout satellites (and others). 

DHS will begin testing and demonstrations using emergency distress beacons in the Arctic beginning in early 2019 and continuing through the summer. “We will set the beacons off, the satellite should detect it and send signals back to the ground station," said Holly Wendelin, RDT&E's lead for C4ISR.

RDT&E believes that CubeSat's small, inexpensive platform has significant potential. Possible uses for satellites include improving communication in the arctic environment, monitoring large areas for illegal activity and helping to locate persons lost at sea. Satellites also have the potential to reduce the time and resources spent on SAR efforts, as well as the risks associated with sending servicemembers out into hazardous search situations. Thanks to Polar Scout, the Coast Guard may improve its ability to respond to maritime disasters and preserve lives along trade routes in the Arctic Circle.