Ever since MH370 was lost in March 2014, there’s been a question at the center of the disappearance–where and what happened to the plane? In the first days of the search, this question sparked a tremendous flurry of activity. Multiple nations flew to action, searching the Indian Ocean and seeking information from satellites, satellite navigation systems, and radar installations, with everyone well aware the clock was ticking before data from the flight recorders would be lost. As the weeks passed and hope dwindled, the activity became less frenetic, if no less important to family members who had loved ones on that fatal flight.
Now, scientists working at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) think they have found enough evidence from pouring over satellite images to narrow the search area definitively. It is not clear, however, that this will spark any kind of additional searching, as the physical search ended in January of 2017.
The full results of CSIRO’s investigation are contained in a third draft report (a final version is coming later this quarter) and in a PDF of analyzed images. Both are worth a read, but the long and short of it is this: The French made satellite images available to Australia for analysis, but the automatic processing algorithms available for bulk satellite data analysis struggle to pick out detail on debris, or to separate the characteristics of man-made objects from others. This problem is further compounded by the fact that the ocean is literally filled with floating garbage, and it’s extremely difficult to parse exactly which garbage may have come from a single event.
Humans are still fairly good at this kind of analysis, however, and CSIRO set out to determine which objects in the four images provided corresponded to objects that were almost certainly man-made. They grouped visual anomalies in the satellite images on a sliding scale to determine how likely they were to be artificial. One such object is shown below:
You can see here that there’s a difference between the way the sun shines on water, creating glint, and the way it shines on this specific object. Even so, the strongest classification CSIRO deployed when analyzing this data is “probably man-made” to reflect intrinsic uncertainty in the data. Just because an object is artificial doesn’t mean it is definitely from MH370.
What’s particularly interesting about these four areas, however, is that debris and potentially man-made objects aren’t scattered evenly. PHR_1 contained one PrMM (Probably Man-Made) object out of 11 possible objects, PHR_2 had zero out of 12, PHR_3 had two out of 11, and PHR_4 had 9 out of 36. Keep in mind that PrMM was the strongest class of object. Some of the objects that weren’t classified as “probably” man-made were still described as “possibly” man-made.
Click to enlarge
Clockwise from the top, the search areas are: PHR_3, PHR_4, PHR_2, PHR_1. There’s a clear cluster of something in PHR_4, and PHR_4 also has the highest percentage of likely objects within it. The team then worked backwards from these data points, comparing them to the most likely areas where MH370 could have gone down.
Based on detailed analysis of ocean currents, the length of time the plane had been in the water on March 23 when the French shot these images, and courtesy of some significant time with Australia’s largest supercomputer, CSIRO was able to put together a list of four potential impact points for the aircraft, and then knock out several of them thanks to the aforementioned current modeling. All are near to, but narrowly distinct from, originally searched areas. The report concludes by saying:
Assuming that some of the objects identified in the Pleiades images are indeed debris items from 9M-MRO, we have shown that there is an impact location that is consistent with those sightings, as well as all the other evidence reviewed by the First Principles Review. This location is 35.6°S, 92.8°E. Other nearby (within about 50km essentially parallel to the 7th arc) locations east of the 7th arc are also certainly possible, as are (with lower likelihood) a range of locations on the western side of the 7th arc, near 34.7°S 92.6°E and 35.3°S 91.8°E… We… have a high degree of confidence that an impact in the southern half of the search area is more consistent with detection of debris in the Pleiades images than is an impact in the northern half.
The big question now is, will any organization or nation send a ship back into the area to check these spots? All four were outside the search areas already covered, but after spending nearly three years on the project, politicians and research organizations may not be willing to throw more money after the effort. We have covered the debris field analysis in the past, including a 2016 story on which pieces of debris had been identified as definitively coming from the downed airliner.