Space Organizations Join the Hunt for Malaysian Jet

malaysia_missingplaneThe disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370, now into its eighth day, remains a mystery to investigators and the families of those who traveling aboard her. Since March 7th when it was first declared missing, the search for wreckage or any trace of what might have happened has produced little in the way of results or explanations, prompting numerous governments and private organizations to commit more in the way of technology and resources.

According to a report from the BBC, these have included the use of 42 sophisticated ships and 39 high-tech aircraft combing the waters according to the BBC. For example, listening devices are being lowered into the water to pick up the “ping” of the black box, and sophisticated MH60 Seahawk helicopters from the United States are employing Forward Looking Infra-red (FLIR) cameras that arm the searchers with night vision.

malaysia_plane_searchThis past Monday,  a crowdsourcing platform called Tomnod, along with parent company DigitalGlobe, launched a campaign to enlist the help of citizens to scour satellite images to search for the plane. On the following day, China followed that up by activating the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters. The goal of this charter is to enlist space data from 15 member organizations to provide assistance in the case of a “natural or technological disaster.”

The charter describes such a disaster as:

a situation of great distress involving loss of human life or large-scale damage to property, caused by a natural phenomenon, such as a cyclone, tornado, earthquake, volcanic eruption, flood or forest fire, or by a technological accident, such as pollution by hydrocarbons, toxic or radioactive substances.

malaysia_satimageNow that the charter has been activated, space scientists around the planet will enlist all available satellites to gather images from the suspected area in which flight MH370 disappeared. Upon activation, data normally starts coming in within 24 hours. The hope is that one of those images will pick up something that can direct search and recovery efforts, either by showing a crash sight or showing some trace of wreckage.

The charter has been activated 400 times in its history, but Tuesday represents the first time it was called into service to look for a missing aircraft. The only other transportation-related event for which it’s been used was to assist in gathering data after a train full of dynamite exploded in North Korea on April 23, 2004. It was most recently activated on February 13 to help with monitoring the Mount Kelud volcano explosion on the Indonesian island of Java.

malaysia_plane_seaPrior to all that, the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters was used exclusively to monitor flooding, forest fires, snowfalls, cyclones, oil spills and other damaging events around the world. It was also used to assist in recovery efforts from earthquakes, including the one that rocked Japan in March 2011 and caused a devastating tsunami and the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant.

The charter, which began after Vienna’s Unispace III conference in 1999 with three agencies, has grown to its current membership of 15 organizations, with the Russian Federal Space Agency being the most recent to join in 2013. Other member organizations include the European Space Agency, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute and China’s National Space Administration. The US member organizations include the United States Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

With this latest commitment of resources, technology and personnel, perhaps the world may finally know what took place aboard Malaysian flight MH370, and the families of those aboard her can finally get some peace of mind.



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