Malaysia releases satellite data on missing jet

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- The Malaysian government on Tuesday released 45 pages of raw satellite data it used to determine that the missing jetliner crashed into the southern Indian Ocean, responding to demands for greater transparency by relatives of some of the 239 people on board.

But at least one independent expert said his initial impression was that the communication logs didn't include key assumptions, algorithms and metadata needed to validate the investigation team's conclusions that the plane flew south after dropping off radar screens 90 minutes into the flight.

"It's a whole lot of stuff that is not very important to know," said Michael Exner, a satellite engineer who has been intensively researching the calculations. "There are probably two or three pages of important stuff, the rest is just noise. It doesn't add any value to our understanding."

Almost three months since it went missing en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, no trace of the jet has been found, an agonizing situation for family members stuck between grief and the faintest hope, no matter how unlikely, their loved ones might still be alive. The mystery disappearance also has nurtured speculation and wild conspiracy theories.

Several family members have been highly critical of the Malaysian government's response, accusing them of failing to release timely information or even concealing it. The government, which in the early days did release contradictory information about the plane's movements, insists it is being transparent in what has been an unprecedented situation.

An international investigation team led by Malaysia has concluded that the jet flew south after it was last spotted on Malaysian military and ended up in the southern Indian Ocean off western Australia. This conclusion is based on complex calculations derived largely from hourly transmissions between the plane and a communications satellite.

An unmanned U.S. Navy sub that has been scouring an approximately 400 square kilometer (155 square mile) patch of seabed since April was scheduled to finish its mission on Wednesday. The Bluefin 21 has been searching in an area where sounds consistent with aircraft black boxes were detected last month.

The next search phase will be conducted over a much bigger area — approximately 60,000 square kilometers (23,000 square miles) — and will involve mapping of the seabed. The area's depths and topography are largely unknown.

Officials are looking to hire powerful sonar equipment that can search for wreckage in deeper water than the Bluefin.

Angus Houston, who is heading up the search, said in early May that it would take a couple months before any new equipment would be ready to be deployed.

The technical data released Tuesday consisted of data communication logs from the satellite system operated by the U.K's Inmarsat company. The plane sent hourly transmissions to a satellite. The signals were never meant to track an aircraft's path, but investigators had nothing else to go on because the plane's other communication systems had been disabled.

Investigators determined the plane's direction by measuring the frequency of the signals sent to the satellite. By considering aircraft performance, the satellite's fixed location and other known factors, they determined the plane's final location was to the south of the satellite.

In an interview with CNN earlier this week, Inmarsat's chief engineer Mark Dickinson said he was confident in the data,

"This data has been checked, not just by Inmarsat but by many parties, who have done the same work, with the same numbers, to make sure we all got it right, checked it with other flights in the air at the same, checked it against previous flights in this aircraft," he said. "At the moment there is no reason to doubt what the data says."

Sarah Bajc, whose husband was on the flight, doesn't believe that the plane few south and had been highly critical of the Malaysian government. She has been at the forefront of a campaign to press the Malaysian government for more transparency.

She said that "a half dozen very qualified people were looking" at the information and she hoped to have their take soon.

But along with Exner, she was also critical of the way it was released. The government put it in a PDF file not in its original data form, making working with it far more time-consuming.

"A little tweak to make people work harder needlessly," she wrote in an email.

Congregating in Internet chat rooms and blogs, many scientists, physicists and astronomers have been trying to replicate the math used, either as an intellectual exercise or out of a belief they are helping the relatives or contributing to transparency around the investigation into the missing plane.

Duncan Steel, a British scientist and astronomer, said some of the data "may" explain the belief that the aircraft went south rather than north, but that further confirmation would take a day or so. But he too was disappointed.

"One can see no conceivable reason that the information could not have been released nine or ten weeks ago. Even now, there are many, many lines of irrelevant information in those 47 pages," he said in an email.

Soon after takeoff, the plane disappeared from commercial radar over waters between Malaysia and Vietnam. The search was initially focused there but gradually shifted to the west of peninsular Malaysia. Authorities say they believe the plane was deliberately diverted from its flight path, but without finding the plane or its flight data recorders have been unable to say with any certainty what happened on board. (AP)

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