How Technology Is Unraveling the Clues of Flight MH17

Building a case with satellite imagery, black boxes and tweets
Ukrainian emergency workers on Monday carry a victim's body in a plastic bag at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. ( Dmitry Lovetsky/AP )

Over the weekend, the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 tragedy turned into a Law and Order episode on the international stage with Secretary of State John Kerry appearing on Fox News and other outlets to make a case against Russia, prompting Fox News interviewer Chris Wallace to observe that Kerry was once “a prosecutor in Massachusetts.”

So what does Kerry’s case consist of? The U.S. is confident that the murder weapon was an SA-11 Gadfly 9K37M1 Buk -1M fired missile. A dispatch from the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine indicates that the rocket launcher was given to pro-Russian separatists by Moscow. At this point, no one is saying that the separatists intended to down a passenger jet. Evidence (see below) suggests that rebel forces believed the plane was a Ukrainian military transport vehicle, since the Buk radar guidance system provides very, very little information about the type of target it’s pointing at. Pro-Russian conspiracy mongers, meanwhile, are looking to plant blame for the incident on Ukraine, claiming that the downing of the plane was a deliberate act of the Ukrainian government.

The entire future of the Ukrainian conflict could change dramatically and decisively as a result of last week’s events. The United States may finally have the justification to begin better arming the Ukrainians, which would escalate the conflict. So far the Pentagon has only provided non-lethal assistance. But Kerry said the U.S. is talking with the Kiev about “what they need,” and that could include “anything except American troops.”

The U.S. will also look to convince European partners to impose tougher sanctions on Russia. “Four percent of Russia’s trade is with the United States; 50 percent of their engagement is with Europe,” Kerry told Fox News. If the U.S. can present a case to show that Russia gave the Ukrainians the arms and the training to down an airliner carrying mostly Dutch citizens, European partners may side with the U.S. in a tougher sanctions regime.

The argument against Russia must be incredibly persuasive. Here’s a look at the forensic technologies that will make the case.

Infrared Satellite Imagery

“We know with a certainty that we saw the launch from this area … we know that it occurred at this very moment that this aircraft disappeared from the radar screen” said Kerry on Sunday.

The most important element in instilling similar certainty among European partners will probably be infrared satellite imagery. The National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO, and the Air Force Space Command operate a number of infrared satellites, such as the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS). There are currently two SBIRS satellites in orbit, but there will be six by 2022, with Lockheed Martin as developer, under control of Air Force Space Command.

The NRO couldn’t comment on the use of infrared satellites in the MH17 case, except to tell Defense One that “facts about the NRO constellation, including capabilities and past and present operations are classified.” But the U.S. has understood the importance of infrared satellite imagery for reconnaissance since the 1950s when we developed these systems for very much the same reason we are using them today, to track rocket launches from machines like the SA-11. For a great primer, read Sean Gallagher’s piece here.

Satellite images provide a literal smoking-gun portrait of the events surrounding the downed plane. But the U.S. has burned its fingers on smoking-gun satellite images before. Other pieces of evidence will likely play a role as the U.S. builds its case.

Chemical Signatures on Airplane Parts

To prove that its theory of the events is true, the U.S. needs data from investigators on the ground in Ukraine from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE. They, in turn, need access to the debris at the crash site to collect samples from evidence. That’s proven to be a thorny issue, as evidenced by news reports that the controlling separatist forces in Donetsk are obstinate, threatening, commonly intoxicated and have blocked both media and investigators.  

Kerry said that OSCE monitors were given just three hours to access the scene on Saturday—and the site is already compromised. “We understand airplane parts have been removed,” Kerry said.

If the Obama administration is correct, what will the ground evidence show? The distribution of debris, once fully catalogued, would confirm a violent sudden explosion, as opposed to a long trail of parts indicating a slow breaking apart and would include missile shrapnel. It would also show that the radar-guided missile likely exploded within about 65 feet from the target. Infrared imaging might show explosive residue somewhat evenly distributed on the bottom of the plane.  Conversely, an excessive amount of explosive residue on the engines could indicate that the missile was heat seeking and not shot from an SA-11 and that the U.S. was wrong.

The Black Boxes

The Boeing 777, like all commercial aircraft, has two components recording inflight data. There’s a cockpit voice recorder in the front and a flight data recorder in the tail of the plane, which records information from the various sensors and other indicators throughout the craft. Data from these two sources is collected in the crash survivable memory unit or CSMU, which has been built to withstand the heat, water, and the physical effects of a major crash.

Presented by

Patrick Tucker is the technology editor of Defense One and the author of the book, The Naked Future: What Happens In a World That Anticipates Your Every Move.

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