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Satellites Unlikely To Find Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777

Mar 15 2014, 1:26am CDT | by , in News | Technology News

Satellites Unlikely To Find Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777
 
 

The odds of quickly resolving the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 via either satellite imagery or related data remain long if not impossible, say analysts.

Although China released a blurry image of what it initially said could be debris from the crashed aircraft at sea, searchers who later went to the scene found nothing.

And the missing Boeing 777-200, which disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing a week ago, would also be almost impossible to detect either intact or in the form of debris using images taken over land, says Brian Weeden, Technical Advisor for the Secure World Foundation, a non-profit that addresses space policy and security issues.


“Satellite imagery is really only of potential use if the search is for debris somewhere in the ocean,” said Weeden. “Satellite imagery is often not a precise science, particularly when you don’t know what you’re looking for. All you can really [hope for] are blobs that may be something, and if they are something it may not be correlated to the missing aircraft.”

High resolution electro-optical satellites in low-Earth orbits can detect objects that are about 50 centimeters by 50 centimeters or larger in daylight, says Brett Biddington, a longtime space and cyber security consultant, based in Canberra, Australia. That is, when the imaging areas are clear and free of clouds.

Biddington says satellites that collect electronic signals, almost certainly will not have been tasked in advance to pay any special attention to the search areas of interest.

“So, any reflection of the time the plane was airborne (some hours as is now being speculated),” said Biddington, “almost certainly would come from careful off-line analysis of data.”

Radar satellites can operate in any weather condition and at night, says Weeden, and are often used to track ships at sea, so he says they can be used to find debris floating on the surface if it’s big enough and made of metal.

Yet Weeden says the area being searched is just too vast to hold out much hope. He notes that a single satellite in low-Earth orbit is only over a particular spot for a couple of minutes at most and then only makes such scanning passes once per day or once every couple of days.

Although Weeden says the U.S. has the best such imagery, many of its military satellites wouldn’t be tasked for such searches.

“Many countries (including China) have a number of sensitive national security capabilities that are probably not contributing to this search,” said Weeden. “If they found something, they might have to reveal the capability. We’ve seen some of this in the reluctance of the Malaysian military to reveal more details about the military radar that may have tracked the missing aircraft.”

Even so, Biddington says one or more satellites may have collected both information about the flight itself, as well as evidence of debris. But he notes that such information may only now becoming available as a result of deep off-line analysis.

As for the Malaysian government’s role in the search?

“The big questions concern the ineffectiveness of the Malaysian air traffic control and the country’s civil disaster and military command and control systems,” said Biddington. “All would seem to have performed very badly. It’s a function of technical limitations – radars that are stand-alone sensors and not networked, and people – protecting turf, keen to avoid blame by refusing to accept responsibility, who are [also] not well-trained.”

Even without such concerns, Weeden notes that the task of analyzing thousands of square miles of imagery is more than daunting. He says such analysis will require either automated software or help from crowdsourcing outlets such as Tomnod.

 

Given the news that the missing aircraft may have been flying for several additional hours after its last radar contact, Weeden says he expects the satellite search alone to last for weeks.

“The debris or wreckage could be of any size or shape,” said Weeden. “Without knowing what to look for in the imagery, [finding] it almost becomes a matter of luck.”

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Source: Forbes

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