Each evening as I scan the news for the latest information about the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, I am excited to see satellite images providing answers about the potential resting place of this aircraft. However, as an American aerospace engineer who has been working in the space business for over two decades, one question keeps going through my mind: Where are the American satellites in the search for MH370?
I’ve seen satellite imagery provided by Chinese satellites, French satellites, even Thai satellites, reports of Japanese intelligence satellite imagery and an early initiative from an American company,, to crowd-source image exploitation. Where are the nightly images provided by American satellites?
The apparent loss of 239 lives is certainly not the occasion for nationalistic braggadocio. Yet the U.S. government spends more than $8 billion annually on national security space systems, and each night I wonder: Could we do more to develop systems to aid in these disasters?
The country gets tremendous value from that investment. It is no secret that the United States operates an exquisite system of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites that provide incredible capabilities to support our national security and defense. I’m quite sure these systems are being utilized to the greatest extent possible in the search for MH370. However, these systems are limited in number and in high demand to provide information about hot spots all over the globe.
An additional complication is the highly classified nature of these systems and their products. While this level of classification is critically important to protect intelligence sources and methods, it renders it nearly impossible to share these images with the general public and international search teams.
Watching this incident unfold has reinforced to me several important points about the space business.
First, the remote location of this disaster, in some of the worst sea conditions on the planet, highlights the value of overhead satellite systems. It can take ships weeks to get to such a remote location, and extreme weather severely limits aircraft surveillance. As I write this, all aircraft-based operations are canceled due to weather. Satellites will pass over the potential crash site several times per day with multiple optical and radar-based imaging sensors that continue to provide critical details.
Second, this is a multinational search effort demanding open collaboration. Satellite imagery that is unclassified and can be shared across national boundaries is very valuable.
Third, space-based sensors cannot do the job alone. This disaster highlights the importance of vertically and horizontally integrated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance architectures. Satellite imagery and signals from engine sensors picked up by satellite communications systems provide critical clues about the fate of MH370, but these need to be integrated with information from airborne and maritime sensors as well as data from computer networks and human sources.
Finally, this incident drives home the importance of a robust and resilient national security space architecture. Such an architecture would combine the best attributes of commercial and international satellites, low-cost tactical satellites and exquisite strategic satellites that are all seamlessly integrated into multinational coalition space operations to support security, defense and civil operations. The rapidly growing commercial and international space-based imaging sector can provide a diverse set of imaging capabilities. Whether providing submeter resolution visible and multispectral images or day-night all-weather radar images, these systems can provide images many times each day from various look angles and lighting conditions. Perhaps more importantly, they could provide unclassified imagery across national boundaries.
Technology innovations continue to drive down the cost and increase the performance of small satellites, making it feasible for the U.S. government to deploy and operate a constellation of “tactical-quality” imaging satellites. Demonstration of such capability has been achieved with the TacSat-2 visible imaging satellite, the TacSat-3 hyperspectral sensing satellite and the ORS-1 visible/infrared imaging satellite. A thin-line layer of tactical satellites could provide a robust and resilient surge capability to military commanders in events such as the loss of Flight MH370.
These satellites could be seamlessly integrated into the search operations currently being conducted by U.S. Pacific Command — providing cues for airborne, maritime and terrestrial ISR assets that are sharable across national boundaries.
Finally, these tactical-quality systems could be backstopped by exquisitely capable classified satellites that provide answers to the most difficult, challenging and emerging national security questions.
There is strength in numbers, especially when the search for the “needle in a haystack” expands beyond 1.5 million square kilometers.
Each of these three layers (commercial/international, tactical and strategic) integrated together would comprise a robust and resilient national security space architecture. If the United States employed this kind of space architecture today, we could do more, and no longer would we have to search for the American satellites in the search for Flight MH370.
Peter Wegner is the director of advanced concepts at the Utah State University Space Dynamics Laboratory and the former director of the U.S. Operationally Responsive Space Office.