Earlier today, the Australian Safety Transport Board released a pair of reports that are being billed as a significant new development in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, MH370. The Adelaide Advertiser described it as “an explosive new report that effectively narrows the search zone for the missing plane down to an area half the size of Melbourne.”
The first report was produced by Geoscience Australia, a government research body, and is entitled “Summary of imagery analyses for non-natural objects in support of the search for Flight MH370.” It describes a number of pale blobs seen in French satellite imagery taken two weeks after the plane’s 2014 disappearance in the vicinity of the area that the ATSB now considers its most likely crash site.
The second report, “The search for MH370 and ocean surface drift – Part III,” was produced by another arm of the Australian government, the CSIRO. It builds on the information presented in the first report to claim that the new information effectively narrows down the range of possible endpoints to an area east of the 7th arc just 50 km long.
Indeed, the CSIRO paper states: “we think it is possible to identify a most-likely location of the aircraft, with unprecedented precision and certainty. This location is 35.6°S, 92.8°E.”
It certainly sounds like something important has transpired. But if the last three years have taught us anything, it is that confidence on the part of Australian investigators correlates poorly with their ultimate success. And here, in particular, we have an example of big talk with little to back it up.
Everything hinges on the satellite imagery. In the early days of the mystery, there were a great number of reports of what appeared to be debris spotted by satellites. None of them resulted in debris being located on the surface. Many of these suspicious-looking objects, as I recall, turned out to be white caps. The effort to find traces of the plane by satellite proved so fruitless that I thought it had been abandoned.
The Geoscience Australia paper makes no convincing argument that the blobs seen in the image are man-made, let alone that they have to do with MH370. The only reason to suspect that might be the case is if you assume that the plane went missing in the area. To then use these presumed potential MH370 bits to validate your search area is then a good example of petitio principii, or begging the question.
In the course of their discussion, CSIRO authors Griffin and Oke highlight in passing a major problem with the ATSB’s new preferred search area: it stands at odds with the board’s own conclusions about how the flight ended. They write: “If impact was between 36°S and 32°S, as concluded by the First Principles Review, the aircraft must (obviously) be farther from the 7th arc than the region that has been searched, but still within a distance that it could have glided after commencement of descent.” The key word being “glided.” Griffin and Oke recognize that the only way that the plane could have gotten beyond the already-searched area is if it glided, which requires conscious piloting. This contradicts the previous ATSB conclusion that, based on the BFO data, the plane was in a high-speed plunge as it transmitted the final ping, and was probably not under the control of a conscious pilot.
Why were these paper released? I’d put it down to an effort by the Australian government to be seen as prodding the Malaysians to re-start the seabed search. Personally, I would like to see this happen, because all the evidence points to it being a failure, and once everyone recognizes that the plane didn’t go into the southern Indian Ocean, we can start to make progress.
I fear, however, that Malaysia will see this latest effort for the hot mess that it is, and remain unmoved.