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Satellites Prove Key To Search

March 31, 2014
The long-awaited tracking of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370’s final flight path is credited to satellite data coupled with math and engineering knowledge.

The satellite market is moving forward at a dazzling rate, thanks to the myriad needs of today’s world and subsequent technology developments. From GPS III to commercial, weather-monitoring, and otherwise-purposed satellites, advances are being driven forward daily. With so many “eyes in the sky,” many have worried about loss of privacy. If the official story is true, the tragic loss of Malaysia Airlines’ 370 jet has revealed that satellite systems and technology are indeed so numerous that they can provide at least some intelligence on anything within their “view.”

As the world waited to find out what had happened to the missing jet, new satellite reports of ocean debris were produced frequently from various countries. Between bad weather and the delays in pinpointing potential debris, however, searches were delayed or postponed—only to uncover that the sighted objects were most likely garbage floating in the ocean. In the process of figuring out how a jet could just “disappear,” the world learned a lot about the 777’s transponder and communications equipment and how—once those systems were disabled—the plane would simply cease to be tracked.

By tracking satellite “pings” and applying several math concepts to them, it was finally announced that the plane’s path had been rather definitively plotted. One of Inmarsat’s satellites had received regular pings from a plane that it could confidently identify as Flight 370. According to an article on CNN, titled “How ‘groundbreaking’ number crunching found path of Flight 370,” Inmarsat officials and engineers were able to determine whether the plane was flying away or toward the Inmarsat satellite’s location by expanding or compressing the satellite’s signal. In other words, they leveraged Doppler effects to judge whether the signal was compressed or expanded based on the longitudinal position of the orbiting satellite.

Each ping was analyzed to determine the direction in which the plane was moving—a process reviewed by space-agency experts with contributions from Boeing. By adding trigonometry calculations, the engineers were able to determine angles of flight. According to these findings, the plane’s final resting place was calculated as being in the southern Indian Ocean. As of the time of this writing, the plane has still not been found, leaving the story behind its fate a mystery. In addition to underscoring how tragedy can strike so unexpectedly, this story reveals how implicitly we have come to trust and depend on today’s electronic communications systems…to the point where we may be unsure how to replace their functionality in an emergency. Whether or not their presence is welcome, today’s satellites—coupled with engineering and math know-how and creativity—have hopefully provided some answers for the many relatives and loved ones in mourning.

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