Now Anyone Can Access Satellite Data for MH370

But the data release is unlikely to offer any new information.

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May 27 2014, 12:10pm
Image: Flickr/Simon Boddy

Nearly three months after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing, Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation and British satellite company Inmarsat have released the satellite data from the flight.

The release follows pressure from relatives of passengers who have asked for greater transparency around the MH370 investigation, and an announcement by the Malaysian acting minister of transport earlier this month. 

The idea, presumably, is to allow other experts to check the data and, from there, confirm the likely last location of the plane—though it no doubt represents more of an effort at transparency than any real hope at uncovering new leads.

While the data was released “for public consumption” and with some explanatory notes, it’s pretty technical. The 47 pages show satellite data such as the “handshakes” between the plane, the ground station, and the satellite, after it left radar screens. That’s some of the key information that’s been used to narrow down the search engine so far, and which has placed MH370 in the Indian Ocean to the west of Australia.

A post on the Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s website gives a thorough guide on what these communications are. Looking at the data, we need to look at two values for each “handshake” check-in, “Burst Timing Offset” (BTO) and “Burst Frequency Offset” (BFO).

The TSB explains that, “The BTO is a measure of the time taken for a transmission round trip (ground station to satellite to aircraft and back) and allows a calculation of the distance between the satellite and the aircraft.” It also includes the processing time within the various terminals, which the Malaysian aviation authority’s notes explains is constant. That allows us to draw a circle on the Earth, along which the distance to the satellite will be the same.

Image: Inmarsat/Boeing /Google (via Australian Transport Safety Bureau)

BFO then helps to measure the speed and direction of the plane—it’s “the measure of the difference between the expected frequency of the transmission and the frequency received at the ground station.” That can be affected, for instance, by the Doppler effect (how a wave’s frequency changes if its observer is moving) caused by the movement of the plane and satellites. Using estimates of speed and location from this, investigators could narrow down where along the rings drawn from BTO the flight path might have hit. Bear in mind there’s still a lot of room in the potential search area.

You can see from the data that MH370 responded to seven “handshakes” after the loss of radar, the last at 00:19 am. This was initiated from the plane itself, and the TSB wrote that it was “consistent with the satellite communication equipment on the aircraft powering up following a power interruption,” adding that, “The interruption in electrical supply may have been caused by fuel exhaustion.” This backs the suggestion that, through whatever series of events, the plane ran out of fuel and crashed.

While the families have been fighting for the release of the data, it seems improbable that any new information will come out of it. I’m certainly not in a position to make any real sense of the data released, but as BBC science correspondent Jonathan Amos writes, “Independent teams have already assessed it and come to the same conclusion: MH370 lies somewhere far off the coast of western Australia.”

The New York Times came to the same conclusion, quoting Tim Farrar, a satellite communications consultant, who said the data lay some of the inevitable conspiracy theories—for one, that the plane headed west to a military base—to rest.

It’s also unlikely to offer much relief for relatives; some have argued that the data is too technical for them to understand or verify, while others have complained that by attempting to make the data more easily readable, some of the details are lost. 

Satellite company Inmarsat did not respond to a request for comment, and I’m waiting on responses to questions from the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation—I’ll update if they get back to me. 

In a joint statement, they emphasised that the data logs are just one avenue of exploration and that the investigation is ongoing.