Finding a missing Malaysia Airlines plane may hinge on whether searchers can narrow down where they need to look using satellite data that is inexact and has never been used for that purpose before, search and rescue experts say.
Authorities now believe someone on board the Boeing 777 shut down part of the aircraft's messaging system about the same time the plane with 239 people on board disappeared from civilian radar. But an Inmarsat satellite was able to automatically connect with a portion of the messaging system that remained in operation, similar to a phone call that just rings because no one is on the other end to pick it up and provide information. No location information was exchanged, but the satellite continued to identify the plane once an hour for four to five hours after it disappeared from radar screens.
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Based on the hourly connections with the plane, described by a U.S. official as a "handshake," the satellite knows at what angle to tilt its antenna to be ready to receive a message from the plane should one be sent. Using that antenna angle, along with radar data, investigators have been able to draw two vast arcs, or "corridors" — a northern one from northern Thailand through to the border of the Central Asian countries Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and a southern one from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean. The plane is believed to be somewhere along those arcs.
Southern route more likely, experts say
Given that a northern route would have sent the plane over countries with busy airspace, most experts say the person in control of the aircraft would more likely have chosen to go south. The southern Indian Ocean is the world's third-deepest and one of the most remote stretches of water in the world, with little radar coverage.
Australia has a powerful military radar system with an approximate range of 3,000 kilometres used to monitor the Indian Ocean west of the country. But the radar would have to have been pointed in the right direction at the right time to have picked up detailed flight activity, said John Blaxland of the Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.
Without any alarms triggered at the time, the radar data probably would have recorded at most a blip on a screen, which likely wouldn't provide enough information to track the plane, Blaxland said Monday.
"So to expect that's going to deliver some kind of miraculous tracking of an aircraft over a week ago ... I think we might be a bit disappointed," Blaxland said.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he will speak with Malaysian officials Monday to see if they wanted additional search help.
Asked whether any Australian agency had picked up any information suggesting the plane flew near Australia, Abbott said: "I don't have any information to that effect, but all of our agencies that could possibly help in this area are scouring their data to see if there's anything they can add to the understanding of this mystery."
It's possible plane landed somewhere
Air crash investigators have never used this kind of satellite data before to try to find a missing plane, but after pursuing other leads it's the best clue left.
"The people that are doing this are thinking outside the box. They're using something that wasn't designed to be used this way, and it seems to be working," said William Waldock, who teaches accident investigation at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona. "In terms of search and rescue, they're probably going to have [to] rewrite the book after this."
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Authorities generally believe the plane crashed into the ocean, although they can't rule out the possibility that it may be on land somewhere.
Air force Maj. Gen. Affendi Buang and Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said it was possible for the plane to "ping" when it was on the ground if its electrical systems were up and running.
Australia said it was sending one of its two AP-3C Orion aircraft involved in the search to remote islands in the Indian Ocean at Malaysia's request. The plane will search the north and west of the Cocos Islands, a remote Australian territory with an airstrip about 1,200 kilometres southwest of Indonesia, military chief Gen. David Hurley said.
Twenty-five countries are involved in the search for the plane, using at least 43 ships and 58 aircraft.
"If it really is out there in the Indian Ocean, they're going to need a lot more than that," Waldock said. "It's immense. It takes a lot of effort, a lot of people, a lot of ships and airplanes."
In order to narrow down the location, low-flying planes are searching broad swaths of water for any sign of debris. The search is complicated by the vast amount of trash floating in the world's oceans.
If the airliner did crash into the ocean, some lighter-weight items such as insulation, seat cushions, and life jackets, as well as bodies not strapped to seats, are likely to be floating on the surface, Waldock said. The heavier parts of the plane would sink, with depths in some parts of the Indian Ocean at over 4,500 metres, he said.
'In terms of search and rescue, they're probably going to have [to] rewrite the book after this.' - Accident investigation expert William Waldock
When suspected debris of a plane is found, the nearest ship — whether it's a search ship or a commercial vessel that happens to be in the area — is sent to the site. A small boat or life raft usually has to be lowered into the water for a closer look at the debris to judge whether it might have come from the missing plane.
If searchers find airplane debris, ocean currents will have already moved away from where the plane went into the water. Searchers will then have to use their knowledge of currents in the region to estimate how far and from what direction the debris came, and work backward to that location.
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The airliner is equipped with two "black boxes" — a flight data recorder that contains hundreds of types of information on how the plane was functioning, and a cockpit voice recorder that contains pilots' conversations and noise in the cockpit. Both are equipped with underwater locator beacons, sometimes called "pingers," that emit a sonic signal that can only be heard underwater. Sonar on ships can sometimes pick up the pings, but they are best heard using a special pinger locator device that is lowered into the water.
The U.S. Navy in the Indian Ocean region has a pinger locator. "It's boxed up, it's ready to be sent somewhere," said a U.S. official. "Right now, there just isn't enough evidence to tell us where to send it."
The official agreed to speak only on condition anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly