What Was Going On at Yubileyniy?

1 - Yubileyniy overview 2012 smallAs readers of this blog or my Kindle Single (or, now, New York magazine) know, I’m intrigued by the possibility that MH370 might have been hijacked and flown north to the Yubileyniy Aerodrome within the Baikonur Cosmodrome. If so, it would have come to rest on the specially-milled concrete at approximately an hour and a half before sunrise on Sunday, March 8. And then what? If it stayed where it was, it would have been easy to spot by land-imaging satellites overhead. To avoid detection, it would have to have either refueled and taken off again, or found some kind of shelter.

As it happens, the Kazakh steppe is a terrible place to hide a 210-foot long, 60-foot-high airplane. The flat, desert plain is sparsely populated and almost featureless, so that anything large and unusual is apt to stand out. There is no natural canopy of trees to shelter under. Though there are large buildings at the cosmodrome where space vehicles are serviced, there are no large structures near Yubileyniy.

After I began developing my “Spoof” hypthesis I spent days scouring first Google Earth, then free commercial satellite imagery looking for any hint that a plane could have been stashed in the vicinity. The pickings were slim. The Yubileyniy complex was built in the ‘80s as the landing site for the Buran space plane, and after the program was cancelled in 1989 it has largely sat disused. Occasionally the runway is used by planes carrying inbound VIPs and cosmonauts, but otherwise nothing has really happened there in decades. An overview of the area is depicted above.

The dark, fishhook-shaped line is the rail line connecting the airstrip to the rest of the Baikonur complex. Alongside it is a road from which a series of driveways lead off to the north. One of them leads to an isolated six-story building that stands surrounded by debris, berms, and trenches. I came to think of the area as Yubileyniy North. Here’s what it looked like in 2006 (click on images to enlarge):

2 - Yubileyniy North 2006

As you can see, the area is desert, where vehicle tracks persist for many years. The six-story building casts a dark, short shadow to the northwest — the sun is nearly overhead. The road from the airstrip comes up from the bottom of the frame and curves to the right. Here and there rectangular patches of debris suggest where buildings once stood. Essentially, it’s a ruin. Here’s the same area, six years later:

3 - Yubileyniy North 2012

Not much has changed. The sun is lower in the sky, so the six-story building’s shadow is longer. But nothing seems to have changed at all. The entire area of Yubileyniy is like this—the place seems have been left to slowly crumble in the desert sun for decades. There’s nowhere to stash a 777. On the other hand, the most recent imagery viewable here in Google Earth comes from 2012. Perhaps something has happened since then? I didn’t know anything about what kind of imagery is available from commercial sources, but I set out to learn. Before long I came upon a company called Terraserver, which lets you view high-resolution satellite imagery for free. I used it to scope around the general area of the Yubileyniy complex, and here’s what I found in an image of Yubileyniy North from October 31, 2013:

4 - Oct 31 2013 small

Suddenly, things are happening. A number of trucks are lined up in the parking lot in the upper-right part of the image. The six-story building is being disassembled. And what looks like a large rectangle of dirt has been bulldozed to the left of the building. The image resolution is so good that you can make out what I take to be the stripes left by the bulldozer blade as it worked back and forth horizontally. At the northern end of the rectangle is a berm which casts a shadow to the north. At the far northeastern corner lies what appears to be a trench with a well-defined corner on the upper right, with treadmarks leading out of it toward the southeast. I’m not sure what this dirt rectangle represents — are they building a pile of dirt, or a hole? — but what really gets my attention is the size of the thing. To give you a sense of scale, I’ve superimposed an equivalently proportioned 777 silhouette onto the image:

5 - Oct 31 w 777

This struck me as interesting, to say the least. Naturally, I wondered what happened next. Fortunately, Terraserver had one more image that I could browse for free. This next one was taken on April 26, 2014:

11 - Apr 26 2014 small

Holy cow. All traces of both the building and the dirt rectangle have been erased. Various debris piles have been swept away, too. At first I thought that maybe the image had been digitally scrubbed, but if you look closely you can easily make out individual pieces of junk in between the cleared areas. So my interpretation is that the site was actually cleared and swept up.
So here’s the situation: nothing happens at Yubileyniy for decades; then, four months before MH370 disappears, the Russians start building a 777-sized something-or-other a mile and a half from a giant disused airstrip. Then, a month after the plane disappears, the area looks like it’s been erased.
What had happened in the meantime? To find out, I had to shell out cash from my own pocket to buy imagery from the main commercial satellite imagery provider, Digital Globe, via one of its resellers—in this case, a company called Apollo Mapping. The cash drain was painful, but at this point I was very far down the rabbit hole. Here’s what Yubileyniy North looked like on December 17, 2013:

6 - Dec 17 2013

The sun is low on the snow-dusted steppe; it’s almost winter. In a month and a half, workers have removed all but the bottom-most floors of the six-story building. You can make out the shadow of a crane projecting to the north from the middle of the remaining structure. A handful of trucks can still be seen in the parking lot. The dirt pile has been extended a few yards to the north; the berm at that end now overlies the what we saw as the sharp corner of the trench in the October image. Beyond the berm lies either a dark strip that could either be a long trench or just a shadow; to my eye the line of brightness at its northern edge implies the lip of a trench, but who knows. Work is clearly continuing. The next image, in black and white, is from three weeks later, January 9, 2014:

7 - Jan 9 2014

Now winter is in full effect. Snow blankets the entire region, and cold has descended: in the four days before this picture was taken, the temperature fluctuated between -15F and +14F. The disruption of the snow cover shows that work is very much underway. The building seems to be down to its last story. Trucks can be seen in the parking lot. I’m not sure what to make of the northern end of the rectangle; two dark strips are visible, perhaps one of them is a trench and the other is the shadow of a berm. Unforunately the resolution is not very good because the image was taken at a fairly low angle. The fact that work is continuing under such harsh conditions suggests a sense of urgency, to my mind; or perhaps these are simply hardy mofos. By the time the next image is taken, nearly two months have passed.

8 - Mar 2 2014

In this black-and-white image, the building has been completely dismantled and the dirt rectangle bulldozed flat. No berm remains at the northern end. Horizontal bulldozer tracks are still visible. The dark dirt is framed with a lighter border, suggesting perhaps a snowy slope. No trucks are visible, suggesting that the work crew has moved on. A color image taken four days later looks almost identical:

9 - Mar 6 2014

This image was taken two days before MH370 disappeared, on March 6. The next one was taken eight days after, on March 16:

10 - Mar 16 2014

When I first saw this picture, my heart leapt. The two scenes, taken just before and after the disappearance, looked so different that I was certain that something significant had occurred in the interim. Perhaps what was a rectangular depression in the March 6 image has now been filled in with sand (along with maybe, oh, who knows, a plane?).
I began pricing out tickets to Kazakhstan and searching the internet for advice on detecting large buried things with metal detectors. I located a Russian from St. Petersburg who’d made a gonzo two-day bike trek across the steppe to reach the Yubileyniy strip and sought his advice on how to get to the area without permission; he told me that he’d camped out at the airstrip overnight without anybody noticing him but then had tried to visit a busier part of the cosmodrome and gotten arrested. After he told them he was just scouting around because he was a huge fan of the Buran project, they let him go. I figured that if I was more careful I had a good chance of making it in and back.
But then I looked more closely, and examined the weather records. It just so happened that during this time interval spring fell on Baikonur like a hammer. On March 6, the temperature had only just peeked above freezing, by the 16th the daily highs had been in the 40s for the better part of a week. The thaw has completely changed the color palette. Everything that was covered in snow, and hence lighter colored, is now sodden and hence darker colored. White plains of snow are now damp brown sand. The darker earth of the rectangle is now drier and lighter-colored. After staring at these images for many hours I concluded that the most likely interpretation is that nothing has changed except for a temperature change.
And so we wind up back at our April 26 image:

11 - Apr 26 2014 small

By now the desert has returned to its normal dried-out state. The cluttered jumble seen over the winter has been replaced by almost featureless swatches of tan. A vehicle track overlies the northernmost part of the dirt rectangle, its borders now smudged and indeterminate.
I showed some of these images to construction experts and satellite imagery professionals, and received very little encouragement. Most likely, they told me, the work being performed was site remediation: a building was torn down, and construction debris thrown in a trench and covered up. As successive trenches are dug and filled in, a rectangular shape is formed. Simple as that.
And yet: the entire cosmodrome is littered with decades of abandoned equipment and derelict buildings, evincing a constitutional lack of interest in the concept of remediation. There is no commercial or residential activity for miles of Yubileyniy. Why, after decades, did the Russians suddenly need to clear this one lonely spot, in the heart of a frigid winter, finishing just before MH370 disappeared? And why is it that the greater part of the dirt rectangle was already laid out in the Oct 31 image, before the building was substantially demolished?
I don’t know. I tried to reach out to people who might know, but had no luck, and eventually I had to turn my attention to projects that might earn me some money. But I’d love to find out. If any readers have any special insight, I’d love to hear it.

UPDATE 4/3/2106: Since I wrote the above, Google Earth has added a new high-quality image of the site, taken October, 12, 2014. It gives a different impression from the last image–it doesn’t look any longer like the dirt was swept flat, like someone trying to cover their tracks.

October 2014