Unlike Hollywood movies, satellite searches for Malaysia Airlines’ missing jet has limits

Published: March 20, 2014
Missing Jet-Australia-satellite image-debris

This combo of handout satellite images taken on March 16, 2014 and released on March 20, 2014 by the Australian Government’s Department of Defence

HOLBROOK MOHR
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

The satellites searching vast stretches of ocean for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane are not the stuff of Hollywood.

They can scan large areas for relatively small objects, but they have limitations.

That’s why experts say images taken by a private-sector satellite company and released by the Australian government provide a clue that needs investigating, but they aren’t conclusive evidence that the objects in the images are from the missing Boeing 777.

To the untrained eye, the two objects might look like large, white-capped waves in the open ocean. To the eyes of experts, they were sufficiently compelling to send four airplanes to search an area of the southern Indian Ocean.

“You know how they say a picture is worth 1,000 words? Well, in satellite imagery, the picture’s only worth 500. The rest has to come from analysis,” said Sean O’Connor, an imagery analyst with IHS Janes, a firm that specializes in the analysis of defence-related matters.

“It would be very nice if you could see a whole wing floating there, then you could say, ‘OK that’s an airplane,’” O’Connor said. “When you’re looking at something like this, you can’t tell what it is.”

One of the objects was almost 80 feet (24 metres) long and the other was about 15 feet (5 metres) long, according to John Young, manager of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s emergency response division. The images were taken March 16, but Australian officials say it took time to analyze them before they were released.

Young called it “the best lead we have right now.”

Related Stories:

The search was expected to resume at daylight in the area, about 7 p.m. Eastern time in the U.S.

The images came from a DigitalGlobe commercial satellite that scans the Earth from the north to south, said Tim Brown, a satellite imagery expert at GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Va.

These kinds of satellites can look left to right, but the further they look to the side, the lower quality the images will be. There are other limitations. Because of their orbits, they can only scan a specific section of the Earth at certain times each day, much like the sun is only overhead part of the day.

Commercial satellites may be able to pick up stripes on a parking lot by using interpretation software and the contrast of the colours of the stripes and asphalt, but a similar size object in the ocean could easily be missed, said Joseph Bermudez Jr., chief analytics officer and co-founder AllSource Analysis, which specializes in satellite imagery.

They aren’t like those in the movies that can, say, read a car’s license plate from space. And the images are not going to be as clear as those taken by a drone, which is much closer to the Earth.

Governments have more powerful satellites, but those are classified and used for intelligence and national security, trained in the case of the United States on countries like North Korea and Iran, Brown said.

A Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said that as far as he knows, the U.S. has received no specific requests to review its satellite data in response to the discovery in the southern Indian Ocean.

Analyzing satellite images requires an experienced eye, looking for something anomalous that may not mean much to most people. And that has to be filtered through whatever information may be available, like a possible route taken by the missing airplane.

Bermudez said it’s apparent from the images that there is an object floating at or near the ocean’s surface, but it could be trash unrelated to the plane, so people have to go check it out.

DigitalGlobe, a leading commercial provider of high-resolution Earth imagery, recently launched a crowdsourcing effort to locate the plane, which disappeared March 8 with 239 people on board. The effort, using a crowdsourcing platform called Tomnod, relies on Internet users to identify debris.

DigitalGlobe said in a statement that its understanding is the search area expanded to the southern Indian Ocean and waters near Australia in the last few days, “at which time the Australian government started combing through imagery of this extremely large area.”



Picture 1 of 54

In this photo taken April 29, 2014 provided by the Australia Defence Force, multinational air-crew and aircraft involved in operation "Southern Indian Ocean" are assembled for a photo at RAAF Base Pearce, in Perth, Western Australia. Seven nations, including Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., South Korea, Malaysia, China and Japan, have flew daily search mission out to the southern Indian Ocean in the massive multinational hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. AP Photo/Australian Defence Force, Cpl. Nicci Freeman

___

Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Lolita Baldor in Washington D.C. and Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,





Featured

10914RALLY15_217980852

Saskatoon woman, 65, faces death if deported to native Pakistan: lawyer

EVAN RADFORD THE STARPHOENIX A woman in Saskatoon who fled to Canada from her native Pakistan over accusations of adultery has lost a bid to…
Continue Reading »

COLD_MURDER_SENTENCE_20130410_210705138

Man jailed for murder of Vancouver girlfriend wants to withdraw his guilty plea (with video)

KEITH FRASER VANCOUVER DESI A man who spent 12 years on the lam before being convicted in the fatal shooting of his teenage girlfriend wants…
Continue Reading »

calf

Villagers worship ‘miracle’ calf in India born with third eye (w/ video)

VANCOUVER DESI People are flocking to a small village in southern India to worship a “miracle” calf believed to be an incarnation of a Hindu…
Continue Reading »

LOCAL NEWS

Saskatoon woman, 65, faces death if deported to native Pakistan: lawyer

By Steve Lambert THE CANADIAN PRESS WINNIPEG — A woman who fled to Canada from Pakistan — and who may be stoned to death upon…
Continue Reading »

10914RALLY15_217980852

Saskatoon woman, 65, faces death if deported to native Pakistan: lawyer

EVAN RADFORD THE STARPHOENIX A woman in Saskatoon who fled to Canada from her native Pakistan over accusations of adultery has lost a bid to…
Continue Reading »

Mediator strides between camps as B.C. teachers and government aim for deal

By Tamsyn Burgmann THE CANADIAN PRESS RICHMOND, B.C. — Negotiators for striking British Columbia teachers and the province huddled separately in a Richmond hotel for…
Continue Reading »

Don't Miss...

underwater photos

Gallery: Couples pose for ‘romantic and beautiful’ underwater photos

VANCOUVER DESI Some memories need to be captured in the most beautiful and romantic settings, especially when it comes to life’s important occasions involving weddings…
Continue Reading »

heptathlete India

Indian athlete with six toes on each foot attempts to overcome deformity to medal at Asian Games

C. RAJSHEKHAR RAO THE ASSOCIATED PRESS NEW DELHI – Merely wearing shoes is painful for Swapna Barman. She was born with six toes on each…
Continue Reading »

striking teachers

Kids attending Surrey farm school likely helping to feed some striking teachers (w/video)

GLENDA LUYMES VANCOUVER DESI Instead of pencils and books, kids took up carrots and cucumbers Thursday at “farm school.” As the teachers’ strike stretches on,…
Continue Reading »

crime-Reeva Steenkamp

South Africa prosecuting authority unhappy with Oscar Pistorius judgement in shooting death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp

IANS Pretoria – South Africa’s top prosecuting authority Friday expressed its disappointment on not being able to secure a conviction on the original charge of…
Continue Reading »

body odour-discrimination

San Diego cabbies outraged by body odour test used to ban foul-smelling drivers

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Body odour is among 52 criteria that officials at San Diego International Airport use to judge taxi drivers. Cabbies say that smacks of…
Continue Reading »


Bollywood Latest

Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger gestures to the waiting media as he returns after visiting Tamil Nadu state Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalitha at her office in Chennai, India, Monday, Sept.15, 2014. The former California Governor is in Chennai as part of a promotional event of Tamil movie ‘I’. AP Photo/Arun Sankar K

Arnold Schwarzenegger, in Chennai for Tamil film launch, says he’d love to work with Shankar

IANS Chennai  – Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was in Chennai on Monday as the chief guest for the audio launch of Tamil film I, said he…
Continue Reading »

Parineeti Chopra and Aditya Roy Kapur

Gallery: Bollywood actors Aditya Roy Kapur and Parineeti Chopra on ‘food yatra’

IANS New Delhi – The lead actors of “Daawat-e-Ishq” Aditya Roy Kapur and Parineeti Chopra have embarked on a ‘food tour’ to promote their upcoming…
Continue Reading »

Shah Rukh Khan Deepika Padukone Bollywood sex

Salman Khan: Shah Rukh Khan and Happy New Year team will promote film on ‘Bigg Boss’

IANS Mumbai – Actor Salman Khan, who is gearing up with “Bigg Boss” season 8 says his rival Shah Rukh Khan will promote his film…
Continue Reading »