Investigators are closer to solving an international aviation mystery thanks to a British communications satellite and classroom physics.
A masterful analysis of a handful of faint signals sent from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 to an Inmarsat satellite led officials to conclude that the Boeing 777 crashed in a remote part of the southern Indian Ocean. More precise information about the plane's position when it sent the last signals is helping authorities refine the search being undertaken by planes and ships in seas 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth, Australia. Investigators had precious little information to examine otherwise because the transponder, identifying the jet to air traffic controllers, was deactivated about the same time the jet veered off course from its original destination, Beijing, early March 8.
Even with other communications shut down, the plane sent an automatic signal — a "ping" or a "handshake" — every hour to an Inmarsat satellite. The pings did not show the jet's location, speed or heading, but an initial analysis showed the last ping came from a position along one of two vast arcs north and south from the Malaysian Peninsula.
For its more detailed analysis, Inmarsat studied the pings sent from Flight 370 on the ground at Kuala Lumpur airport and early in its flight. It considered aircraft performance, satellite location and other known factors to calculate the possible positions, direction of travel and speed of the plane. It then compared its predictions to six other Boeing 777 aircraft that flew the same day, and found good agreement, according to Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein. Inmarsat did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press.
Think of a horn being honked in a passing car. To an observer, the sound is high pitched as the car approaches and is lower after the car passes. That's because on approach, each successive sound wave is sent from a slightly closer position to the observer. The sound waves get compressed, resulting in a higher frequency. The opposite happens as the car moves away. It's called the Doppler effect for Austrian physicist Christian Doppler, who first put forward the theory in 1842.
The same effect applies to "pings" from the plane to the satellite orbiting in a fixed position, which would arrive at a higher frequency if the plane was moving toward the satellite and decrease in frequency when moving away.
"By analyzing that you can determine speed and direction," said Joseph Bermudez Jr., chief analytics officer and co-founder of AllSource Analysis, a commercial satellite intelligence firm. And by determining the area from which the last signal was sent, then estimating fuel left, it "could give you an approximate area of where the aircraft impacted."
Inmarsat sent its data to investigators days after the plane went missing. But it continued to run its own analysis to see if it could wring out any more clues.
The company's engineers were dealing with a "totally new area," Inmarsat's McLaughlin told the BBC. "This really was a bit of a shot in the dark." However, the latest information could only go so far in pinpointing the jet's location.
"We can't help you with any closer data," he said.
Satellite specialists were impressed by Inmarsat's analysis.
"They exploited a digital trail that was never intended for that use. It was just a shadow that somebody spotted and made use of," said David Cyganski, dean of engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
Gregory D. Durgin, a professor who teaches satellite communications at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said that because Inmarsat was using a different kind of satellite in a novel way, he expects it would locate the last ping from the Malaysia Airlines lane within "around 100 miles of precision."
Inmarsat Plc started out in 1979 as an intergovernmental organization with the aim of helping ships communicate while at sea. It became a private company in 1999 and listed its shares in London in 2005. Customers now include governments, airlines, broadcast media, oil and gas companies, aid agencies as well as merchant shipping. They use handheld satellite phones, laptop size Internet devices and antennas linked to the company's 10 satellites to communicate.
Pritchard reported from Los Angeles. Cassandra Vinograd in London, Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Mississippi, also contributed to this report.
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