Why It’s Taking Satellites So Long To Find Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Why It’s Taking Satellites So Long To Find Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Today, we’re hearing yet another report about a satellite that has spotted “potential objects,” which might be floating wreckage from the vanished Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Today, those images come from France. Yesterday, the images came from China . Last week it was an Australian bird making discoveries.

Now, there’s no telling whether the French satellite actually spotted wreckage. Maybe it did! But the mysterious case of MH370 illustrates the limitations of our satellites when it comes to tracking aircraft, both when they’re in the air, as well as when we’re looking for them in a huge swath of ocean.

It’s absolutely mystifying that an aeroplane would take off and disappear. We live in super-connected world. How the hell do we lose a jet? Sure the ocean is big and planes are relatively small , but this is supposed to be the connected future. It’s what veteran airline reporter Christine Negroni called the “Twitter Paradox,” shortly after the plane disappeared.

That I first heard about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 while 10 miles out at sea in Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay illustrates just how connected we all are to the instant information made possible by today’s communication technology. That three days later little more is known about the aeroplane, where it went and why it did not arrive at Beijing on Sunday morning, is astonishing, frustrating and confounding.

Negroni goes on to explain how aeroplane black box connectivity has lagged behind the amazing progress in world wide communications. In the wake of the a previous ocean disaster, Air France 447, there had been a push for better black box tech by French investigators.

Furthermore, as the New York Times reported a few days ago,the technology to track jets by satellite exists, it’s just not being used.

“The technology is out there, but it’s just a question of political will to recognise this is important,” said Mark Rosenker, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and a retired Air Force major general. “What hasn’t improved is that we still have to wait to recover those boxes to begin accident investigations. Precious days are wasted.”

What little satellite information in the form of pings and blips we’ve been able to glean hasn’t gotten us much closer to finding the plane, although, investigators think they have narrowed the search area to a relatively small stretch of the Indian Ocean .

This is the general area where the recent satellite imagery has been discovered. I don’t mean to be glib in my description of the challenge, but if they find the plane using satellite imagery, it will be incredibly impressive, considering the difficulty of the task. The Washington Post reported yesterday that satellite resources generally aren’t committed to the search area, precisely because nothing ever, ever happens there.

These limits are shaped by physics, money and practicality. Military and commercial satellites are not closely observing and amassing data about the blank places on the map in lightly traveled seas — such as remote areas of the Indian Ocean thousands of miles from where Flight MH370 vanished from radar.

There’s also a trade-off when scrutinizing the surface from space: You can go wide or you can go deep, but you can’t do both. The most sophisticated spy satellites are essentially looking down straws, trying to resolve small details in a narrow field of view.

In other words, if the recent discoveries by the French and the Chinese reveal that we’re zeroing in on our plane, we should be a more than a little impressed in what our technology is capable of. By the same token, we should really be taking full advantage of the satellite technology that exists, to make sure we never lose a plane like this again.