15 space organizations join hunt for missing Malaysian jet

China activates an international charter started in 1999 to aggregate global space data from satellites in an effort to locate Malaysian Airlines' flight MH370.

An Indonesian Air Force military surveillance aircraft searches the Malacca Strait for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. Indonesian Air

As the latest piece of technology to be enlisted in the search for missing Malaysian flight MH370, satellites have the eyes of the world watching them as they watch us.

On Monday, a crowdsourcing platform called Tomnod, along with parent company DigitalGlobe, launched a crowdsourcing campaign to enlist the help of citizens in scouring satellite images to search for the plane that disappeared on March 7.

China has followed that up by activating the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters to join the hunt on Tuesday. The goal of the charter is to enlist space data from 15 member organizations to provide assistance in the case of a "natural or technological disaster." The charter describes such a disaster as "a situation of great distress involving loss of human life or large-scale damage to property, caused by a natural phenomenon, such as a cyclone, tornado, earthquake, volcanic eruption, flood or forest fire, or by a technological accident, such as pollution by hydrocarbons, toxic or radioactive substances."

Now that the charter has been activated, space scientists around the planet will enlist the satellites available to them to gather images from the suspected area in which flight MH370 disappeared. The hope is that one of those images will pick up something that can direct search and recovery efforts.

Satellites are just one of the tech tools involved in the massive multi-national aircraft hunt that already includes the use of 42 sophisticated ships and 39 high-tech aircraft combing the waters according to the BBC. For example, listening devices are being lowered into the water to pick up the "ping" of the black box, and sophisticated MH60 Seahawk helicopters from the United States are employing Forward Looking Infra-red (FLIR) cameras that arm the searchers with night vision.

The International Charter on Space and Major Disasters was most recently activated on February 13 to help with monitoring the Mount Kelud volcano explosion on the Indonesian island of Java. Prior to that it's been used to monitor flooding, forest fires, snowfalls, cyclones, oil spills and other damaging events around the world. It was also used to assist in recovery efforts from earthquakes, including the one that rocked Japan in March 2011 and caused a devastating tsunami and the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant. The charter has been activated 400 times in its history, but Tuesday represents the first time it was called into service to look for a missing aircraft. The only other transportation-related event for which it's been used was to assist in gathering data after a train full of dynamite exploded in North Korea on April 23, 2004.

The charter, which began after Vienna's Unispace III conference in 1999 with three agencies, has grown to its current membership of 15 organizations with the Russian Federal Space Agency being the most recent to join in 2013. Other member organizations include the European Space Agency, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute and China's National Space Administration. The US member organizations include the United States Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. After the charter has been activated, data typically starts coming in within 24 hours, according to a report in Phys.org.

About the author

Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for Crave and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.

 

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