A Shoebox-Sized Solution: How Small Satellites Can Help the US Coast Guard


Navigators have long traced their course by stars. For the US Coast Guard — the nation’s maritime first responder, but also bound by international obligations — it’s small satellites that could shape its future direction.

Maritime search and rescue (SAR) operations begin in space, with satellites picking up distress signals. But this military branch relies on an aging space infrastructure with patchy global coverage that limits its ability to conduct fast and effective SAR operations, especially in the vast Arctic Ocean. To provide adequate coverage in an increasingly busy region, the Coast Guard must invest in small satellite technology.

The urgency only grows. Maritime traffic in the Arctic has increased as climate change continues to warm this region at a disproportionately high rate. Since 1979 there has been a substantial decrease in the amount of sea ice in the Arctic; now some portions are almost no ice in september and ships transit regularly during the summer. It is a valuable sea route: for example, it is more efficient to go from the coasts of China to Europe by the Northern Sea Route (including Russia sees itself as the sole regulator) than the traditional route through the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, the Northwest Passage, which runs along the Arctic coast of North America, has seen a growth in tourism. Given that the inaugural cruise ship in 2016 carried 1,700 passengers, cruise lines would be prepare to meet what is expected to be increased demand for arctic tourism.

With this growth in traffic comes an increased risk of vessels in distress, necessitating a greater Coast Guard presence to provide humanitarian assistance to commercial and passenger vessels, some of which are carrying Americans.

The case of CubeSats

The Arctic presents the Coast Guard with multiple challenges to conducting effective SAR operations. U.S. territorial waters in the Arctic Ocean, as well as those associated with its exclusive economic zone, make up about one million square miles. It’s a vast geographic expanse that the Coast Guard has to cover.

Since 1982, it has relied on an international satellite-assisted search and rescue system known as COPAS-SARSAT, which is sponsored by Canada, France, Russia and the United States and provides worldwide coverage for distress beacons. The system has saved over 44,000 lives but experienced significant delays in distress beacon reception and triangulation. The Coast Guard is developing a Medium Earth Orbit (MEOSAR) system to replace COPAS-SARSAT, but it won’t be fully operational until the mid to late 2020s.

To bridge this gap and test the effectiveness of small satellites, the Coast Guard (part of the Department of Homeland Security) launched its Polar Scout program. Its mission was to improve telecommunications coverage in the Arctic to support SAR and maintain effective domain awareness using cube satellites (CubeSats). These objects are about the size of a shoebox, compared to the COPAS-SARSAT system the size of a minivan.

To support the Polar Scout program, the DHS, in partnership with the private company SpaceX, launched two CubeSats, Yukon and Kodiak, in low Earth orbit in December 2018. They were programmed to detect a distress signal, determine its location and send the information to the nearest rescue center. While the Coast Guard was aiming for a three-year lifespan, the Yukon stopped transmitting after only a few weeks, and the Kodiak stopped transmitting in April 2019.

But this effort was not a failure. The Kodiak was still able to successfully detect distress signals for several months at a fraction of the cost compared to COPAS-SARSAT or the future MEOSAR system. Small satellites are cheaper and easier to build with the commoditization of small satellite components; the cost of launching satellites has also fallen thanks to reusable rockets and ride-sharing programs. Both the Yukon and the Kodiak CubeSats were launched in a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which was being reused for the third time.

Companies such as SpaceX and Planet, an Earth imaging company, continue to improve the transmission reliability and processing power of small satellites. These companies have a fast turnaround from development to launch to ensure the latest technology is in place. Therefore, the Coast Guard should view the Polar Scout program as a success and seek to scale it up and expand its partnerships with the space industry.

Increase budget for space capabilities

But to support its SAR operations, the service must appropriately house and fund its space assets. First, it must designate an office dedicated to the proper maintenance, research, acquisition, and funding of its space programs. It should establish a Space Assets Program Office under the Deputy Commander for Engineering and Logistics (who is the Coast Guard’s chief engineer), rather than keeping it in the Office of Aeronautical Engineering, which primarily focuses on aircraft, not spacecraft.

Second, the Coast Guard must increase its budget for space assets and adapt its acquisition process. For the first time, the Coast Guard’s 2023 budget request to Congress included $775,000 for the research and development of “space technology”. But this funding is relatively tiny compared to other missions, such as cyber operations. The Coast Guard basically has two options: buy a few high-quality satellites or buy many adequate satellites. To ensure continuous coverage of the Arctic, it would have to choose the latter and invest in creating a small constellation of these advanced shoebox-sized satellites.

Such a setup would be more reliable, as it ensures that even if a few units go offline, there will still be continuous coverage. This constellation, like the stars of ancient sailors, should play a central role in guiding the Coast Guard.

Madison Littlepage is a Spring 2022 Global Young Professional at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense practice. She is a graduate student in security policy studies at George Washington University.

Further reading

Image: A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the NileSat-301 commercial communications satellite from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Wednesday, June 8, 2022. Photo by Emre Kelly/FLORIDA TODAY/ USA TODAY NETWORK/REUTERS


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