WASHINGTON/LONDON - An unprecedented international effort is under way from space to track missing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) flight MH370 as satellite operators, government agencies and rival nations sweep their gaze across two oceans in search of elusive debris or data.
Six days after the Boeing 777 went missing with 239 people on board, the search has widened to the Andaman Sea, northwest of the Peninsular Malaysia, with only one precious clue - an ephemeral "ping" detected five or six times after the plane lost contact - picked up in orbit.
Disaster relief agencies and governments are co-operating across political divides, and in the absence of a formal probe are finding informal ways to share information, including via China's weather agency, a person involved in the search said.
"I haven't seen this sort of level of involvement of satellites in accident investigation before," said Matthew Greaves, head of the Safety and Accident Investigation Centre at Cranfield University in Bedford, England. "It is only going to get more important until they find some wreckage."
Several governments are using imagery satellites - platforms that take high definition photos - while data from private sector communications satellites is also being examined.
China alone says it has deployed 10 satellites in the search in a pointed reminder of its growing influence in space. The United States is using all the capabilities that have a view of the area in question, including very high-resolution electro-optical satellites that can identify a car's license plate from space, US government officials said.
"There are a lot of satellites looking at that area of the world," said one source familiar with the network of US national security satellites.
NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK
But having conquered space, orbital nations have been rendered helpless by the sheer scale of the task back on earth.
"It is like finding a needle in a haystack and the area is enormous. Finding anything rapidly is going to be very difficult," said Marc Pircher, director of the French space centre in Toulouse, run by the country's CNES space agency.
"The area and scale of the task is such that 99 per cent of what you are getting are false alarms."
With no firm evidence about where the plane was heading, whether or where it crashed or if it landed, authorities have yet to launch an official probe. Until those questions are answered, it remains uncertain which country would be responsible for such an investigation.
Even so, sources close to the informal investigation encompassing the world's leading space-faring nations as well as naval and air assets said on Thursday a brief "ping" sent hourly five or six times had been received by one or more satellites.
As they try to wring more information out of these faint carrier signals, experts will need to analyse the exact time of transmission and the strength of the signal. The number of satellites spotting the faint electronic blink will be crucial.
"If you have three or more data points, it should be relatively easy to triangulate where the aircraft is and the direction in which it is going in," said Elizabeth Quintana, Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United services Institute.
"However, the sheer number of aircraft operating in the area may make it difficult to pinpoint where the signal was coming from."