SpaceX, NASA To Use Stronger Rescue Beacon For Astronaut Launch

Ramish Zafar
SpaceX's Crew Dragon rendered while entering the Earth's atmosphere. Image: SpaceX/YouTube

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Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have developed a new safety beacon for their upcoming Crew-3 launch to the International Space Station (ISS). The mission is part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP), which uses SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule to ferry astronauts to the ISS. This beacon will be part of a brand new Dragon capsule, which will take flight for the first time next month. The safety beacon, which is used to communicate with the Cospas-Sarsat program, is only activated if the crew onboard the spacecraft are in distress, and the new beacon has a higher effective radiated power (ERP) reveal SpaceX's filings with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

SpaceX & NASA's Third Crew Mission To ISS Awaits FCC Approval For Safety Beacon

Details of the upgrade were revealed in SpaceX's filing with the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology (OET), with the company sharing that the power increase was done at the request of NASA's Search and Rescue laboratory (SARLAB) and the United States Search and Rescue Satellite-aided Tracking (US SARSAT) program.

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The company's previous missions to the ISS, namely the Crew-2, Crew-1 and the Dragon DM-2 missions, used an emergency transmitter manufactured by the French positioning systems equipment manufacturer Orolia S.A.S. Additionally, while the Crew-1 Dragon was a new vehicle, the Crew-2 mission reused the capsule initially flown on the DM-2 mission, which was the first time astronauts launched to space from an American facility in a decade.

SpaceX will use a new Dragon spacecraft for the Crew-3 mission, and while it uses the same emergency beacon as its predecessors, the ERP of this beacon will be significantly higher. The company's FCC filings for the DM-2, Crew-1 and Crew-2 missions reveal that their beacons had an ERP of 0.8W Watts.

SpaceX's submission to the FCC outlining that it is working with the SARSAT authorities to approve a new safety beacon for the Crew Dragon capsule. Image: FCC File 1475-EX-ST-2021

In comparison, the Crew-3 mission's beacon will have an ERP of 14.3W (now updated to read 6.4W), which is significantly higher than what we have seen before. ERP measures the signal output power of an antenna after accounting for signal gain and other parameters.

In response to a query by the FCC asking the reason behind the higher ERP for the Crew-3 mission. SpaceX's Kristi Key outlined that NASA requested the changes and that her company is working on getting the new system certified. The FCC is yet to approve the Special Temporary Authorization (STA) for the Crew-3 post-splashdown emergency beacon.

According to her:

ERP Performance was increased in a development coordinated with NASA Commercial Crew Program, and at the request of NASA SARLAB and US SARSAT. Type approval for the new system is a work in progress with COSPAS-SARSAT secretariat.
The attached exhibit entitled NOAA Reply to Letter dated 21 July 2020 references US SARSAT's support of a new SARSAT beacon development.

Additionally, while NASA and SpaceX are targeting a November return for the Crew-2 astronauts who are currently onboard the ISS, SpaceX's emergency beacon operation request to the FCC list down the mission end date for the 20th of this month.

The launch date for Crew-3 is set for the 30th of this month, with its four astronauts, Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron of NASA, and Matthias Maurer of the European Space Agency (ESA), expected to spend roughly six months at the orbiting space laboratory. All missions test SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft to its limit, which is determined by the vehicle's ability to store and generate solar electricity.

Details for the new Dragon vehicle for the upcoming launch are scarce, but it is expected to feature a stronger exterior and heatshield following SpaceX's earlier experiences with human spaceflight.

Updated on October 12, 2021, with changes to the ERP reading in the FCC filing. Headline adjusted to reflect the change. 

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