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Science & Technology

To Find A Flying Mystery, Search Turns To Eyes In Space


We wondered if satellite imagery might show something about the missing plane, either in flight or after. To talk about that, I'm joined by Brian Weeden, who studies space systems and security. He's technical advisor for the nonprofit Secure World Foundation. Brian, welcome to the program.

BRIAN WEEDEN: Glad to be here.

BLOCK: Let's talk first about the Malaysian Airlines jet in flight. If we assume that it kept flying for hours after it disappeared from radar, would satellite images possibly show that plane in flight?

WEEDEN: There is a theoretical possibility but it is so remote that the satellites probably would not be of any real use in detecting the airplane while it's flying. It would have to be a very fortuitous set of circumstances where the satellite was just happening to take an image of an area while the plane is flying through that area, and you are able to find the plane amongst all the other clutter and cloud and everything else going on with the image. Many of these satellites are in low earth orbit. They're orbiting a few hundred kilometers up, and they don't stay over any one part of the Earth for very long.

BLOCK: Do you know of any cases where satellites have captured an image of a plane crashing or exploding?

WEEDEN: So there have been instances where there's been reports of satellites that are designed to detect infrared heat that have detected massive airplane explosions. And these satellites are primarily used to detect ballistic missile launches around the world. And in the case of TWA flight 800, that was reportedly detected by these satellites. So if it was a large explosion that generate a lot of heat, then there are some satellites that are going to pick that up.

But in this case, officials from the U.S. government have said that those satellites have not detected anything that looked like an explosion anywhere near the projected flight path of this aircraft.

BLOCK: If we assume that the plane crashed, either on land or on water, how helpful do you think satellites might be in finding wreckage?

WEEDEN: So if the plane crashed on the water, then satellites in that scenario could be useful. In that case, they're looking for debris on the surface of the water. Radar satellites that are coming over and imaging sections of the water may be able to find debris, and optical satellites that are taking visible pictures, again, may be able to find debris. The challenge there is going to be picking out what might be debris from clouds and all the other potential things that could show up in the image as something that looks like debris but isn't.

BLOCK: Yeah. And, of course, we had that confusing story the other day of the image from a Chinese satellite that was thought to be debris. And then that was debunked.

WEEDEN: Absolutely. And that shows you the difficulty of doing this. It's something that kind of looks like debris, but you're taking this image from hundreds of miles away and it's just a couple of little pixels that happen to be colored a certain way. And so it's very, very hard to tell and you're always going to need someone on the ground to go by that location and try and follow up on it.

BLOCK: You know, there clearly would be sensitivities about national security, right? And I wonder how that might impede the sharing of satellite images or of revealing just how much they've been able to pick up through these satellites.

WEEDEN: We've already seen in the case of this Malaysian military radar that reportedly may have tracked the aircraft at some point, but the Malaysian government has been extremely reluctant to provide details on what that radar may have seen or even what its capabilities are. And I think that's symbolic of a bigger challenge that probably many governments are having.

There's a lot of governments and a lot of militaries out there that have some extremely specialized capabilities for collecting intelligence and different types of information. And so there's going to be a lot of discussions about which of those technologies and capabilities may be able to help in this situation and, conversely, what the risks may be of revealing those capabilities if they happen to find something connected to this flight.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Brian Weeden. He studies space systems and security. He's a technical advisor for the nonprofit Secure World Foundation. Brian, thanks very much.

WEEDEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.