Satellites and Airliners

SatellitesIt’s difficult to imagine that a Boeing 777 could disappear. It’s 200 feet long, 199 feet from wing tip to wing tip, and has a cabin that’s a bit over 19 feet wide. It carries up to 440 people, and the 200-ER also carriers nearly 15,000 gallons of additional fuel. What that all means is that the Boeing 777-200ER is a huge plane with an extended range. A huge plane with an extended range that has been nowhere to be seen for days. With all the eyes trained on us, all the electronic data we scatter as we move throughout our day, all the various ways and means our governments use to surveil our movements as they work to protect us from those who would intentionally cause us harm, it seems inconceivable that an airliner filled with people could just — vanish.

As it turns out, it isn’t so much that it’s vanished as it is that we just don’t know where it went: The plane left a radar track which has proven to be inconclusive. It’s engines should have phoned home to Rolls Royce, but that information may or may not exist. There were transponders that should have called in, unless they were turned off or destroyed. Yet, it turns out the satellites saw it all…

Or maybe not all. If it were all, they could just start from when the plane took off and follow the flight path. Still, satellite images from DigitalGlobe – taken from more than 400 miles above Earth – are posted on their site. They’ve activated their Tomnod crowdsourcing platform so anyone can log in and help with the search. Nearly 2 million people have tagged more than 645,000 items of interest so far. Initially, so many people logged on to search that they crashed the site. The idea is that if a significant number of people tag the same item, searchers will physically go take a look, thereby using in-the-area resources to best effect.

It’s still a long shot, but since that’s all we seem to have, I’m glad those images are available. More that that, I’m delighted that so many people feel compelled to search the images; it speaks volumes about our prospects as a species.


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