The Search for Flight MH370: Nighttime Satellite Imagery

Still no sign of Flight MH370.

It’s a bracing reminder that the 21st century information-and-technology blanket we’ve wrapped ourselves in still has a few gaping holes.  High-resolution satellite imagery isn’t yet continuous and ubiquitous – not even close.  We’re still too often in response mode when something like this occurs, scrambling to deploy the information-gathering tools long after the event occurred and the evidence has faded. If somebody didn’t have the awesome foresight to program an imaging satellite, days in advance, so it was ready to snap that critical picture in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, that image never comes into existence.

But we do have some pretty cool tools nonetheless.  Thanks to the helpful suggestion of a SkyTruth fan (let us know if you don’t mind us sharing your name!), we’ve been looking at the “Nightfire” nightly fire-detection product coming from data collected by the VIIRS instrument on the Suomi-NPP satellite operated by NOAA. That’s a lot of capital letters, but you’ve seen this stuff before if you’ve been following our blog. These data indicate sources of combustion, and measure the temperature of those fires.  Our assumption is, if the flight went down shortly after air traffic control’s last contact at 17:30 GMT on Friday, March 7, we might see an isolated fire from that wreck site for a short period of time.  Maybe one or two days if it crashed over land; less than a day if it hit the water (and didn’t immediately sink).  So we looked for short-term, isolated fire-detections that were in remote areas over land, or on the water, within 20 miles of the expected flight path and the western deviation implied by some inconclusive Malaysian military radar data.

Some caveats and disclaimers: 1) Our work with the VIIRS data is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive. So feel free to take a crack at it yourself.  2)  The VIIRS Nightfire product is still experimental, and fires can be obscured by clouds and go undetected. And this is a pretty cloudy part of the world.  3)  There are lots of fires in this area: gas flaring from the many offshore oil platforms in the Gulf of Thailand, intentional fires set to clear land for farming, and wildfires.

Anyway, we’ve found a few interesting things during our cursory look at the Nightfire detections. Please share this with anyone who might be in a position to actually use this information.

Overview showing all Nightfire detections on March 8, 2014. Bold orange line shows our approximation of the expected flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.  Bold red line shows our approximation of the deviation from that flight path that was suggested by eyewitness reports of a jet flying low over Kota Bharu, and Malaysian military radar contact of an unidentified aircraft near Pulau Perak Island. Other points of interest marked and explained in a previous blog post

Gulf of Thailand — we only found one combustion source we can’t confidently explain, although it’s in the general vicinity of offshore oil platforms that are flaring gas on a regular basis, and Landsat-8 imagery indicates there may be a platform at this location:

Detail showing all Nightfire detections for March 5 – March 11 over Gulf of Thailand. All but one of these sources (see below) is persistent, occurring on multiple days; they are probably gas flares at offshore oil platforms.

 

Location and temperature information for the only single-night combustion source detected in the Gulf of Thailand near the expected flight path. Fire detected by VIIRS on March 8 at 18:36 GMT, 21 hours after last ATC contact with the flight.  A persistent multi-night combustion source 11 nautical miles north-northwest of this location is probably a large manned oil platform.

 

Western Deviation — we found three single-night combustion events detected by VIIRS in very rugged, remote, forested areas along our approximation (red line) of the supposed western deviation from the flight path:

 

Nightfire detections of combustion sources along the supposed western deviation (approximated by red line) from the flight path. Dark green shows large areas of thick forest.

 

 

Isolated, single-night combustion source on a remote peak in rugged forested terrain of western Malaysia, detected by VIIRS on March 8 at 18:36 GMT.  See below for location.

 

Location and temperature information for combustion source shown above.

 

A second isolated, single-night combustion source in rugged forested terrain of western Malaysia, detected by VIIRS on March 9 at 18:18 GMT.  See below for location.

 

Location and temperature information for second combustion source, shown above.

 

A third single-night combustion source on a peak in rugged forested terrain of western Malaysia, detected by VIIRS on March 9 at 18:18 GMT.  See below for location.

 

Location and temperature information for third combustion source, shown above.


Cambodia — if Flight MH370 actually crossed the Gulf of Thailand and came down on land somewhere along the expected flight path to Beijing, there are large, remote blocks of dense forest where it could have “disappeared.”  We found several single-night combustion sources in Cambodia that meet these conditions, and show one of these below (to repeat, we have not done an exhaustive analysis, and are providing this work only as an example of what can be done with publicly available satellite data — and what we hope is being done, in a rigorous and systematic way, by the authorities conducting the search):

 

Nightfire detections for March 5 – March 11 along expected path of Flight MH370 (approximated by orange line) as it traveled from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Heavily forested areas are dark green.

 

Location and temperature information for a combustion source detected by VIIRS on March 8 at 18:34 GMT, on a densely forested, isolated ridge in north-central Cambodia, shown above. 

Satellite Image Anomaly in Gulf of Thailand

We’ve turned up some Landsat-8 satellite images from the area in the Gulf of Thailand, between Malaysia and Vietnam, where Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 went missing a few days ago.  Landsat images, at 30-meter resolution, are much more detailed than the twice-daily MODIS images at 250m resolution.  The image inset in the map below shows detail from Landsat-8 image P127/R54, taken at 03:27 GMT on March 8.  That’s almost exactly 10 hours after air traffic controllers reported their last contact with Flight MH370 (at 17:30 GMT on Friday, March 7).

Nothing in this image jumps out strongly.  But there is a faint, diffuse, pale anomaly not far west of the general location where we estimate MH370 was when contact was lost.  It appears to be horseshoe-shaped.  

The very approximate center of this is located at 8.551422° N latitude / 102.680976° E longitude.

As best I can tell, this anomaly seems to be high-altitude cloud or smoke; there is an even fainter dark anomaly to the west that suggests a shadow.  But I have to say, this is quite speculative.  It might also be some kind of phytoplankton bloom or other ocean-color feature.  And if it is smoke, 10 hours seems like an awfully long time for it to hang around.  See for yourself:

Faint pale anomaly in Landsat-8 satellite image taken 10 hours after Flight MH370 last had contact with air traffic controllers. See location on map below.  Small white spots are low cumulus clouds (note their matching black shadows offset to the northwest).

 

Detail from Landsat-8 image (inset) showing location of pale anomaly relative to our estimate of MH370’s flight path (bold orange line) and waypoints discussed in our earlier blog post.

 

Where is Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370?

Some folks have been asking us if we can help find the Malaysia Airlines jetliner that disappeared early into a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.  Many news reports state the Boeing 777 vanished from radar “about 2 hours” into the planned 6-hour flight to Beijing, but that would have put the jet well over land, near the city of Ban Khoun Kham in the rugged terrain of southern Laos (see our admittedly simple map-based calculations below).

Map showing our guess at the approximate path of Flight MH370 (orange line) with significant waypoints from various media reports, and from our calculations based on the flight distance and scheduled flight time.

A BBC News report gives more precise timing (thank you, BBC!).  Flight MH370 took off at 16:41 GMT on Friday, March 7 (that’s 41 minutes past midnight, early Saturday morning local time).  The last contact with air traffic controllers was about 50 minutes later, at 17:30.  Based on a Malaysia Airlines route map from their website, and a scheduled travel time of about 6 hours, we think that last contact occurred about 83 nautical miles west-southwest of the tip of Vietnam, in the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand. That’s not far from where a couple of small, orange-tinged, possible oil slicks were sighted, although samples of those slicks reportedly did not match the jet’s fuel. It’s also roughly where airline officials placed the last contact with air traffic controllers, described as being about 120 nautical miles from the coastal Malaysian city of Kota Bharu.

Detail from above, including our estimated location of small oil slick sightings reported in the media.

So, we searched the free archive of low-resolution, twice-daily NASA/MODIS satellite images for this area, to see if anything useful might turn up.

Short answer: as far as we can tell, no.

Images for the past few days are somewhat hazy and cloudy, particularly the Terra image taken at 2:50 GMT on March 8, about 8-1/2 hours after controllers lost contact.  The March 8 Terra and Aqua images also suffer from big gaps in coverage that unfortunately fall right over part of the expected flight path out of Malaysia (gaps in MODIS coverage are not at all uncommon, so conspiracy theorists, take a deep breath). Strong sets of jet contrails are visible on the images from March 8 and March 9, but those are well offshore and parallel to the east coast of Vietnam, and long after Flight MH370 left Kuala Lumpur.

One of the last MODIS images taken BEFORE Flight MH370 took off is a Terra image captured at 03:50 GMT on March 7, about 13 hours before departure. I’ve included this because it shows a few small oil slicks in the Gulf of Thailand. One is clearly bilge-dumping from a passing vessel, something that is unfortunately common in the waters around Vietnam, as our work with radar satellite images has shown.

Detail from a MODIS/Terra image of Gulf of Thailand, taken about 13 hours before Flight MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur. Estimated flight path show as bold orange line. Several small oil slicks are annotated.

Radar imagery would be very helpful for this search, because it’s much better able to show small oil slicks than this low-res MODIS stuff.  But, because NASA doesn’t operate a radar imaging satellite, we have to buy radar imagery from other sources; and the odds of an image having been acquired in the right place and time to be helpful in this case are pretty slim.  But if anyone knows otherwise, please chime in with a comment or send us an email.

National Response Center – Down, But Not Out

We’ve been getting questions about the status of the National Response Center, mostly wondering if public safety is being impacted by the Federal government shutdown.  The major oil spill from a ruptured pipeline in North Dakota, discovered by a farmer on September 29 but not made widely public until October 8, is driving some of this concern.  

We contacted the NRC and  spoke to one of their operations officers, Andrew Kennedy, who was very helpful.  Here’s what we learned:

  1. The NRC is operational. 
  2. Some of the website functionality is down, including the “Online Reporting Tool” for reporting spills and other incidents, and the “Query Standard Reports” tool to search for, and download, recent (2013) reports.
  3. Polluters and concerned citizens can still report oil or hazmat spills, or suspected spills, via telephone (1-800-424-8802). These reports are being distributed as usual to local, state and Federal responders and others who are on the distribution list.
  4. Older reports from previous years can still be downloaded in bulk.

Andrew also explained the situation with the North Dakota pipeline spill:

  • The first report of this spill was filed with the NRC at 1:16 am on September 30, before the government shutdown took effect. It did not include any estimate of the spill size, so it didn’t attract much notice.  It does not appear in the SkyTruth Alerts system, possibly because it didn’t include enough specific location information for us to place it on the map; we won’t know for sure until we can see this report.
  • A second report was filed with NRC on October 8 to provide an update on the spill.  It included the 20,000-barrel spill estimate.  Our Alerts system wouldn’t have been able to access this report because the government shutdown was in effect.

Neither report is currently available for download from the NRC. You can submit a FOIA request to get them, or wait until our government sorts itself out and gets up and running again, and the NRC website’s full functionality is restored. 

Meanwhile, this incident raises fresh questions about industry’s ability to monitor pipeline integrity and quickly detect leaks and spills before they can become huge messes. I think this North Dakota farmer sums it up pretty well:

Jacob Wiedmer, who was helping Jensen harvest his wheat crop, likened the Sept. 29 discovery to the theme song from “The Beverly Hillbillies” television show.

“It was just like Jed Clampett shooting at some food …” he said of the oil coming from the ground. “Except we weren’t hunting, we were harvesting.”

Oil Slicks off Mumbai, India

[UPDATE October 9, 2013 – This news article indicates the reported pipeline spill actually occurred on the coast, not offshore. So now we’re not sure what was the source of the extensive slicks on the MODIS satellite images.]

This morning we saw a brief news report noting that Indian authorities reported a “small” oil spill from an offshore pipeline off the coast of Mumbai.  This pipe carries oil ashore from one of India’s largest producing oil fields, the Mumbai (Bombay) High field.  It’s not the first time this pipeline has had problems.

This MODIS/Terra satellite image taken on October 8, 2013 clearly shows oil slicks in the Arabian Sea scattered throughout a 66-mile-long northwest-trending belt ranging about 50 to 100 miles offshore.  We don’t know for sure if these slicks are related to the pipeline spill.  We’ve seen smaller slicks in the area in the  past, from other causes.  But these slicks seem to be generally in the right area to correspond to this recent pipeline problem, and their alignment is compatible with the wind blowing from the northwest.  If anyone can provide an accurate latitude/longitude coordinate for the exact location of the pipeline failure, that would be very helpful.

MODIS/Terra satellite image taken October 8, 2013, showing apparent oil slicks in the Arabian Sea off the west coast of India near Mumbai. Image courtesy NASA/MODIS Rapid Response Team.  Analysis by SkyTruth.

If these slicks are all attributable to the pipeline failure, we don’t think this was a “small” oil spill as reported by an unnamed company official:  the two largest patches of slick at the northwest (upwind) end cover a total area of about 324 km2.  Assuming a conservative minimum average slick thickness of 1 micron, those two patches amount to about 85,500 gallons of oil.  The US Coast Guard classifies that as a “medium” sized oil spill.  If the stringy, scattered area of slicks at the southeast (downwind) end are added in, the amount likely exceeds the 100,000-gallon threshold for being classified as a “major” offshore oil spill.

The MODIS/Aqua image taken on October 7 also shows these slicks, although they are partly obscured by clouds.