Malaysia Finally Releases MH370 Satellite Data as Search Scales Back

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Months after families of the passengers of still-missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 asked to see the satellite data used to search for the flight, the Malaysian government has finally complied — sort of. 

Malaysia and Inmarsat, the satellite telecommunications company which helped the government figure out the plane's likely flight path, released a 47-page report to serve as a "readable summary of the data communication logs from the Inmarsat satellite system provided to the authorities." But some families complain that the document is not readable at all. Wang Le, whose mother was on board the flight, told the New York Times that "This kind of data is too technical for family members, we cannot understand it, and we also don’t know whether it’s real or fake." And the report is still just a summary of the satellite data provided to the government by Inmarsat, meaning that it is incomplete account of the satellite information used to determine the flight route. 

The report suggests that the plane was flying south when it ran out of fuel and crashed into the Indian Ocean, which is, naturally, consistent with what officials have told the public in the past. According to the document, Inmarsat used a number of satellite communications, called "handshakes," were used to deduce the plane's flight path. CNN explains:

The satellite signals -- called "handshakes" -- with MH370 were part of a larger set of data that investigators have used to try to establish the whereabouts of the missing Boeing 777 with 239 people on board. The handshakes continued to take place for roughly six hours after the aircraft dropped off radar screens.

The "handshakes" were between an Inmarsat ground station located in Perth, Australia, a separate Inmarsat satellite and the plane's own transmitter. Each time the two Inmarsat satellites sent information to the plane, the firm took note of both the "burst timing offset" — how long it takes for the transmission to go from the ground, to the plane and the satellite before returning to the ground — and the "burst frequency offset," which looked at the discrepancy between how long Inmarsat expected the transmission to make the trip, and how long it actually did. Using the two metrics, Inmarsat was able to track the plane's movement and distance. 

From the government report. 

It adds that "handshakes" were heard hourly, but that the final "handshake" broke the pattern, possibly do to an electrical systems reset that took place when the plane ran out of fuel. 

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Inmarsat's vice president of satellite operations, Mark Dickinson, told CNN that his company used three types of information to conclude that the plane had crashed into the Indian Ocean. "We have actually the messages from the ground station to the plane and back again. That essentially tells you the terminal is switched on and powered up," he said, adding, "We have some timing information and in addition to that there were some frequency measurements."

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which has been looking for the plane, also released a number of statements yesterday outlining its search methodology and discussing the future of the search, which will essentially be put on hold until August.  

The Wall Street Journal, however, is reporting that next week, private contractors will have an opportunity to take on the search, thanks to a public tender. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.