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Missing plane search focuses on new satellite imagery data

March 22, 2014 at 6:22 PM EDT
After two weeks of searching, the missing Malaysia Airlines plane has yet to be found. In recent days both Australian and Chinese satellite imagery have picked up on objects that could be aircraft debris. What does this mean for search? Hari Sreenivasan speaks with WSJ reporter Andy Pasztor about the technology authorities are using to find flight 370 and how it is affected by nature.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For more about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, we are joined now from Los Angeles by Andy Pasztor. He’s been reporting this story for the Wall Street Journal.

Andy, you were on a couple nights ago speaking with Gwen about debris the Australians had spotted, today we’re hearing that the Chinese have spotted some debris. Are we likely to see this repeat over and over again? It’s a big ocean.

ANDY PASZTOR: It is a big ocean and people are looking very hard so I think we might see some more of it. It’s not clear, of course, whether either of these two are hits on debris matter. But what I really think you’re really starting to see is an intriguing conflict between the extremes of nature and the extremes of technology. That nature part, of course, is that this is a very forbidding part of the world, huge waves, constant wind, whitecaps everywhere – very hard to spot even 60 or 70-foot long pieces of debris. On the other hand you have pieces of technology – you have various countries trying to use their super-secret highest resolution imaging satellites to try to see what they can find. And what you have is sometimes a gap between the time that the image is spotted and the time when a person or person can eyeball it to make sure it really merits further investigation. And then when the planes go out to find it; it may not be there because of the extreme weather or it may have sunk or may have moved away.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what about the idea that all these satellite systems are looking at specific areas. Are they working together so that they’re not redundant? Is the quality of the imagery the same from a government to a private company?

ANDY PASZTOR: For the outside it’s a little hard to tell how well they are working together. The Australians, in fact, have been talking about the need for assistance – for more experts to look at imaging and for countries to work closer together. I think they’re trying but it’s not clear that it’s working so well because these are really very special assets for ever county. And so they don’t want to divulge publically or even to some other partners in the search exactly what they have.

The resolution or the quality of the images does vary, of course, depending on the quality of the systems. In the case of the U.S. we’re using partly a commercial satellite company, Digital Globe, and their imaging is absolutely as good as using certain satellites and in certain instances as good any national imaging system.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There are reports now that the Pentagon has spent about $2.5 million on this. What sorts of technology assistance might the U.S. Defense Department be giving to Malaysia in the search?

ANDY PASZTOR: Well, I would say that $2.5 million is a tiny, tiny portion of how much we’ve actually spent. If we task satellites, that is instruct them, to look at certain areas that means that they are not looking at other areas. And we’ve certainly used some expertise to look at these images so I think we’ve probably spent much more than that. But what the Malaysians have asked for, and what I think that the U.S. is likely to give them some of what they’ve asked for, is submersibles – that is tiny robotic submarines to go underneath the surface of the ocean and see what they can find. And they’ve also asked for listening devices – underwater listening devices, as well as tankers which is much harder because many of these search planes can’t be refueled in midair.

HARI SREENIVASAN: : So if we look back at wreckage of the Air France disaster, it took two years for people to agree really on where to go back and search where the wreckage actually was. And it was in an area where they had previously searched. So, I guess my question is are they really taking precautions now before making sure that they check off the box that this area is clear of the plane?

ANDY PASZTOR: We’re certainly learned a lot, they have, the experts have, from previous searches, so I think they’ve being very careful.  But once again, it’s not quite as deep as it was in the Air France crash, but the weather is very bad and it’s becoming fall. So every day that goes bar, fall in the that portion of the world, every day that goes by I think it’s going to be a bigger challenge, because Mother Nature is really fighting our technology.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  All right, Andy Pasztor from the Wall Street Journal, thanks so much.

ANDY PASZTOR:  You’re welcome.