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Technicians put the final touches on the second of three Radarsat Constellation Mission satellites at a MDA facility in Montreal, on June 21, 2018.Ryan Remiorz/CP

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. Charlotte Hook is a research assistant and junior fellow of the Outer Space Institute.

One day, a satellite might save your life.

In late July, a mountain climber was struck by a falling rock near Mount Waddington, one of British Columbia’s Coast Mountains. Despite the severity of the injury, the life-threatening accident was transformed into a rapid-rescue operation when the climber’s companion activated a handheld emergency beacon.

Within minutes, a satellite in orbit had received and relayed the precise location of the emergency signal to the Canadian Armed Forces’ Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria. A helicopter was deployed to rescue the injured climber and fly them to a hospital.

Emergency responses like this occur every day in Canada, not only because we are the second-largest country on Earth, but also because we participate in the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme – a global network of satellites used to support search-and-rescue operations.

Since 1982, Cospas-Sarsat has guided the rescue of more than 50,000 people worldwide. Its diverse membership includes China, Russia and the United States, all of whom contribute satellites or ground stations.

Emergency beacons connected to the network are required by law to be present on planes and ships. They are also carried by any responsible person who ventures into the remote wilderness. Whenever a beacon is activated, operators relay its location to the nearest search-and-rescue authority, wherever in the world it might be.

Canadians can be proud of Cospas-Sarsat. We were one of the initial four countries that created the system in 1979, along with France, the United States and the Soviet Union. We operated the first ground station for relaying satellite signals and conducted the first rescue. Today, Cospas-Sarsat is an international organization with 43 member states, and we host the organization’s secretariat in Montreal.

Canadian leadership is also visible in the use of satellites in providing high-resolution, near-real-time imagery to assist disaster relief efforts around the world. Here, the co-ordinating mechanism is the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters – a non-binding agreement dating to 2000 that now includes 17 space agencies and eight satellite companies.

Under the Disasters Charter, governments and companies provide life-saving imagery on request whenever one of their satellites is determined to be in the best position and equipped with the most appropriate technology to do so. Over the course of 22 years, 270 contributing satellites have supplied imagery to 154 countries, saving countless lives.

Canada is a leading contributor to the Disasters Charter, having provided imagery on 370 occasions to countries struck by natural or human-caused disasters. Seventeen of these responses have been provided in 2022 alone, after floods, cyclones and an oil spill.

Most of the imagery supplied by Canada comes from the Radarsat Constellation, a trio of Canadian Earth-observation satellites launched in 2019. Operated by the Canadian Space Agency, the satellites fly across 90 per cent of the planet’s surface each day. Outfitted with synthetic aperture radar technology developed in Canada, and tested in two earlier satellites, they produce high-resolution images, even at night and through clouds.

Canada also benefits from the Disasters Charter. The Canadian government most recently activated the Charter on Sept. 23, the day before Hurricane Fiona struck Atlantic Canada. Operators determined that two French satellites would be best positioned and equipped to provide the most helpful imagery. The resulting images have such high resolution that one can see the damage to individual homes in Channel-Port aux Basques, N.L.

Remarkably, all of this satellite-based assistance is provided for free. Both the Disasters Charter and Cospas-Sarsat are grounded in the “good Samaritan” principle of aiding those in distress, and countries and companies that provide satellite relays and imagery cover all their own costs. This allows countries without these capabilities to benefit from other countries’ satellites. It also prevents situations where governments or individuals might hold off on calling for help because of financial concerns.

Just as remarkably, Russia remains active in both the Disasters Charter and Cospas-Sarsat, sharing information and images despite the extreme international tensions created by the war in Ukraine.

Ukrainians use their mobile phones standing near a Starlink satellite-based broadband station in Kherson, on November 13, 2022-/AFP/Getty Images

Since invading Ukraine in February, 2022, Russia has sent satellite imagery in response to four activations of the Disasters Charter by Gambia, Thailand, Chad and the Philippines, and made three activations of its own after floods, forest fires and a typhoon. Two NATO countries – France and the United States – responded to the Russian activations by sending imagery from their satellites. Co-operation also continues in Cospas-Sarsat, which today lists eight Russian satellites as active in the network.

Apparently, saving innocent lives is an imperative on which otherwise antagonistic countries can agree. During these dark times, space-based co-operation in search-and-rescue and disaster relief is a welcome recognition of our shared humanity. Somewhere in Canada, or Russia, someone will need rescuing today. And when they do, it might just be a satellite from another country that receives and relays the emergency signal.