Meet WorldView-2, the satellite that provided Australian authorities with the images that appear to show two objects in the Indian Ocean 2500 kilometres south-west of Perth that may be related to missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Launched on October 8, 2009, and owned by US satellite company DigitalGlobe, WorldView-2 provides imagery at a resolution of approximately 50 cm. It takes a new image of any place on earth every 1.1 days (1 day , 2 hours and 24 minutes).
The satellite, among four others that DigitalGlobe owns, weighs 2800 kilograms, operates at an altitude of 770 kilometres, and is able to collect nearly 1 million square kilometres of imagery every single day, which is then distributed to those who pay for access to DigitalGlobe’s imagery.
DigitalGlobe confirmed on Friday that it was the one who provided the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) with the satellite images that were captured on March 16, showing the two objects in the Indian Ocean.
“We have been informed by an Australian government official that it was our imagery Prime Minister Abbott referred to in his recent comments,” the company said in a statement.
“Working with our customers, DigitalGlobe continues to task our satellites to collect imagery of a wide area that includes the waters around where the possible debris was identified.”
A clue that DigitalGlobe’s satellite was used lies in the imagery released on Thursday afternoon by AMSA to the media after its press conference, which said that DigitalGlobe owned the copyright of the images.
Despite this, when Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s general manager John Young took to the podium on Thursday to explain to reporters the discovery of the images that might show pieces of MH370, he carefully omitted to tell them the source.
When asked about it, he avoided the question.
And when reporters phoned Australian defence officials to ask the same question, they were given a firm “no comment” or “we can’t discuss”.
This may seem odd, because the satellite’s owners, DigitalGlobe, were only too happy to tell the media on Friday.
The contrast highlights a longstanding syndrome. Australian officialdom is hyper protective of US intelligence and its sources – even more protective than the Americans themselves.
It’s a symptom of the Australian defence establishment’s mentality as an anxious junior ally, afraid of giving its senior partner any reason to curtail the flow of intelligence.
A DigitalGlobe spokesmen declined to comment on whether the debris were spotted by DigitalGlobe’s own analysts or analysts from governments that use its service, such as Australia and the US.
It couldn’t have been discovered by internet users participating in a “crowdsourcing” effort launched by the company to help locate the plane though, as the Australian search area has not yet been uploaded to the site, operated by DigitalGlobe and called Tomnod.
The large objects that Australian officials said were spotted by satellite four days ago are the most promising find in days as searchers scour a vast area for the plane.
The larger of the objects taken four days ago measured up to 24 meters long and appeared to be floating in water several thousand metres deep, Australian officials said. The second object was about five meters long.
DigitalGlobe is the parent company of Tomnod, which has been progressively releasing select areas of satellite imagery to a crowd of more than three million to scour through.
The satellite company has not said if it will release imagery that encompasses the search area off the coast of Western Australia to the public on Tomnod.
“We’re working to confirm further details,” DigitalGlobe said.
“In the meantime, other customers including the US government and other governments have been receiving our imagery for their own search efforts.”
DigitalGlobe said that the sheer number of images covering a large swath of ocean contributed to the delay in revealing what could be debris from the Malaysia Airlines jetliner that has been missing for nearly a week.
“Given the extraordinary size of the current search area, the lengthy duration of the analysis effort was to be expected,” a DigitalGlobe spokesman said.
The company’s five high-resolution satellites capture more than 3 million square kilometers of earth imagery each day.
“This volume of imagery is far too vast to search through in real time without an idea of where to look,” the spokesman said.
A number of Australian government agencies pay DigitalGlobe for access to imagery generated by their satellites, including the Australian Antarctic Division and Geoscience Australia.
Tender documents show that Geoscience Australia alone has paid DigitalGlobe almost $1 million since July, 2012, for satellite imagery over Wide Bay in Queensland and of imagery over the Great Barrier Reef.
It’s not clear though through tender documents if Australian intelligence agencies and Defence also pay for access to DigitalGlobe’s imagery, as Fairfax was unable to find contracts between them and DigitalGlobe.
DigitalGlobe said no conclusions have been reached about the origins of the objects shown in the imagery near Australia, and it was not aware that any subsequent search missions that have been able to locate them.
“But the experience again demonstrates the unparalleled geographic reach and persistence that satellite imagery provides for critical government missions and emergency response situations,” it said.
It’s unclear if DigitalGlobe has any restrictions placed upon it by the US government concerning who it shares its satellite imagery with.
– The Sydney Morning Herald with Peter Hartcher and Reuters
|China mulls sending Xuelong to join search mission for MH370
The Chinese icebreaker Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, awaits orders for the search of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at the port of Perth, a southwestern port city of Australia, March 20, 2014. Xuelong will set off to the waters where suspected debris of the missing flight MH370 has been found, according to the State Oceanic Administration of China. (Xinhua/Tang Zhijian)
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