Can top secret satellites help find missing airliners? While it’s not what the technology was designed for, US Satellite Assets including the Space Based InfraRed System (SBIRS) are doing just that. SBIRS has come to the forefront because it’s one of the newer United States Air Force technologies that might be able to detect an exploding airliner, such as MH17. But it was never really designed for that kind of detection. SBIRS was meant for missile launch detection and giving a “heads-up” to anyone who needed it. What’s interesting is SBIRS, and other space asset data, are being used in a way that might not have been considered before—to bring evidence of murderous wrong-doing into the international political arena. It’s not a new tactic to have top secret satellites aid in international justice with satellite imagery, but it might be a new circumstance for SBIRS.
A New Scientist post notes SBIRS was involved in detecting a surface-to-air missile launch when the airliner was destroyed. They quote John Kerry: “We know the trajectory. We know where it came from. We know the timing. And it was exactly the time the aircraft disappeared.” This means a space asset was involved, although by “disappeared,” Kerry probably means an energetic explosion was noted by SBIRS operators at the spot the airliner was probably flying in right after the launch of the missile towards that spot.
More interestingly is that Kerry also brings another asset, however inadvertently, to the fore: “From voice identification we know the separatists were bragging about shooting it down afterwards.” This is quite interesting, because so far as we know, the SBIRS satellites are infrared sensing satellites only, which is a Measurement and Signatures Intelligence (MASINT) activity. So Kerry’s comment, especially when he uses the word “voice,” starts verging into Signals Intelligence, or SIGINT, territory.
SIGINT, or more specifically Communications Intelligence (COMINT) since this is about voice communications which is a subset of SIGINT, is all about signal interception. Does this mean there was a COMINT satellite looking at the troubled area? Or were there COMINT assets on the ground? Maybe it was a combination of both, but either way, the US somehow managed to intercept communications. The communications likely came from a cell phone or radio (because just imagine dragging lots of cable behind a BUK), and heard the bragging.
It seems then, that at least two space based assets from the United States happened to be overhead during the shoot down of the airliner. The third space asset, one that doesn’t belong to the US government, are the imaging satellites owned by DigitalGlobe (although the US is probably bringing their own imagery assets to bear, too). Aviation Week posted a gallery of DigitalGlobe’s before and after pictures of the area over which the airliner was destroyed.
Why does there seem to be so much satellite information about this Malaysian Airlines flight versus the extreme lack of satellite data for MH370? Very simple, and also explained in the second-to-last paragraph of this Ars Technica post: “…they have all been pressed into service for monitoring emerging potential threats, such as the flashpoints on Ukraine’s eastern border.” In this case, it sounds like the satellites were watching that area anyway. No one expected anything to happen with MH370, or in the areas through which it was flying, so no one was looking.
Will any of these space assets help to bring the murderers of the passengers and crew to justice? They might. If they have a voice communication and the radio frequency the voice used, plus perhaps other data, such as boasts on the internet, there may be a chance to do just that. Will the US be willing to expose some of their INT technologies to help catch the criminals? That’s something they will have to contemplate, because it might put American soldiers at risk. Of course, there are simpler and cheaper ways, such as bounties, for bringing the criminals to justice. It’s better than arming a nation and possibly keeping hostilities going in the region, or tipping the US military’s hand in capabilities that could be brought to bear in battle.
Either way, I don’t think the surviving relatives of the MH17 passengers will feel lucky about this.