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Malaysia Makes Public Satellite Data From Missing Jetliner


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene. It has been almost three months now since a Malaysian Airlines jet disappeared with 239 people on board. Satellite data led authorities to conclude the plane flew for hours and then went down somewhere off the coast of Australia. Yesterday, investigators made that data public for the first time. And joining us in our studio to discuss this is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, welcome.


GREENE: So what exactly was released yesterday?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the plane disappeared from radar shortly after it took off, but it stayed in touch with the satellite. Every hour the satellite would send a ping down to the plane and the plane would send a little signal back, so Malaysian authorities released the raw data - the log, those pings, yesterday. It came from a company called, Inmarsat. Short of ones and zeros, this is as technical as it gets. It's all times, frequencies - a lot of detailed information.

GREENE: And I gather these details don't include even where exactly the plane was flying, right?

BRUMFIEL: That's right. Interestingly enough, despite all this technical information, the actual location data wasn't included in these transmissions. But the guys over at Inmarsat - the engineers - managed to come up with a very technical sort of analysis that allowed them to trace the plane's route based on some of the properties of the signal itself. And they found that the plane likely went down in the southern Indian Ocean, that's where the search has been focused.

GREENE: OK, and you're talking about that - that was when they decided where they thought it went down. That analysis came out back in March, so why are the authorities only releasing this data now at this point?

BRUMFIEL: The families have a lot to do with this. The families have been pushing for the data to be released for weeks now. I think it's important to them because there's so much uncertainty about what happened to the plane that's led to a lot of conspiracy theories - everything from aliens to black military operations or hijackings. And frankly, the Malaysian authorities have not always been very clear about what's happening with the investigation. So the families really wanted this information out.

But, you know, I think it's also there because there's been some - what I would call, Monday morning quarterbacking. There's been other experts outside the investigation who've really been questioning the analysis Inmarsat's done.

GREENE: All of these questions, of course, I mean, as you mentioned, these families who are looking for some kind of closure, some kind of answers - I mean, will this data help answer some of these questions for these families?

BRUMFIEL: This is the really, I think, sort of troubling thing about this. I mean, it's very technical. It's 40 some pages of timestamps and lots of very, sort of, official-looking stuff. The problem is that there's not that much more information in there.

If you believe the Inmarsat analysis, then this is pretty much, you know, what they've said is right. And if you don't, well, this is only part of what they used. I mean, you need to know every detail about the satellites, the plane's antenna and electronics - a lot of stuff that was used in the analysis that isn't included in this data. So I'm not sure how far it's going to move things forward.

GREENE: All right, we've been speaking to NPR science correspondent, Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff thanks very much.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.