Skip to main content

How 'groundbreaking' number crunching found path of Flight 370

By Thom Patterson, CNN
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Satellite experts use "groundbreaking" process to track Flight 370's final hours
  • The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777's last position was "in the middle of the Indian Ocean, west of Perth"
  • Satellite official: Hopefully, this will trigger a "mandate that all aircraft should be constantly tracked"

(CNN) -- Monday's announcement by Malaysia's Prime Minister acknowledging that missing Flight 370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean opens the door to a big question: How did new number crunching confirm the Boeing 777's path?

Now we know for sure "there's no way it went north," said Inmarsat Senior Vice President Chris McLaughlin.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Monday that the plane was last tracked over the middle of the Indian Ocean, west of Perth, Australia. Malaysian Airlines has informed passengers' relatives that "all lives are lost," a relative told CNN.

Monday's announcement brings new questions about the mystery that has captivated the planet for more than two weeks. It also provoked a call that all airliners be constantly tracked.

How Inmarsat found MH370's path
Gauging Inmarsat's confidence in search

The mathematics-based process used by Inmarsat and the UK's Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) to reveal the definitive path was described by McLaughlin as "groundbreaking."

Experts: Flight ended west of Perth
Flight ended in ocean, questions remain

"We've done something new," he said.

Here's how the process works in a nutshell: Inmarsat officials and engineers were able to determine whether the plane was flying away or toward the satellite's location by expansion or compression of the satellite's signal.

What does expansion or compression mean? You may have heard about something called the Doppler effect.

"If you sit at a train station and you listen to the train whistle -- the pitch of the whistle changes as it moves past. That's exactly what we have," explained CNN Meteorologist Chad Myers, who has studied Doppler technology. "It's the Doppler effect that they're using on this ping or handshake back from the airplane. They know by nanoseconds whether that signal was compressed a little -- or expanded -- by whether the plane was moving closer or away from 64.5 degrees -- which is the longitude of the orbiting satellite."

Each ping was analyzed for its direction of travel, Myers said. The new calculations, McLaughlin said, underwent a peer review process with space agency experts and contributions by Boeing.

It's possible to use this analysis to determine more specifically the area where the plane went down, Myers said. "Using trigonometry, engineers are capable of finding angles of flight."

What could wreckage tell us about Flight 370's fate?

No surprise

Experts said they weren't surprised by the news that the flight traveled along the southern track -- one of two possible paths revealed by satellite data last week. The possible northern track toward Pakistan would have been heavily monitored by radar. Pakistan had said it found no evidence of Flight 370 on its radar systems.

New French images may show objects
Challenge of searching the Indian Ocean
Chinese satellite spots floating object

"It was very difficult to believe that no watch captain" along the possible northern path "would've seen a burning or distressed aircraft in the sky during the course of their watch," said McLaughlin.

Is the more pinpointed flight path now focused enough to increase the chances of finding wreckage from the plane?

If the flight definitely ended far from land, does that support the theory that the plane was not hijacked? It's just one question of many that investigators likely will be pondering in the coming days.

Hours before the Prime Minister's announcement, Australian officials said they had spotted two objects in the southern Indian Ocean that could be related to the flight, which has been missing since March 8.

One object is "a gray or green circular object," and the other is "an orange rectangular object," the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.

"This is obviously a major tragedy," McLaughlin said. "The only thing you can hope is that from this, just as the Titanic resulted in (new safety legislation), that from this, there will be a mandate that all aircraft should be constantly tracked."

READ: Search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: the technology

READ: Experts, relatives ask: Where's the proof that MH370 fell into ocean?

READ: MH370: Angry families march on Malaysian Embassy in Beijing

Part of complete coverage on
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
The search for MH370 is moving to an area farther south in the Indian Ocean, said the Australian Deputy Prime Minister.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 0033 GMT (0833 HKT)
Erin Burnett speaks to Miles O'Brien about the latest in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
June 18, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Ten experts say that the search for MH370 should move hundreds of miles away from the previous search area.
June 17, 2014 -- Updated 1322 GMT (2122 HKT)
His wife never came home from her flight on MH370, and now K.S. Narendran is left to imagine the worst of possible truths without knowing.
June 16, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Families are desperate for results as the search for MH370 reaches a grim milestone. Anna Coren reports from Beijing.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Relatives of passengers are launching an effort to raise $5 million for investigations and a "whistle blower" reward.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 0731 GMT (1531 HKT)
Making sure another plane is never "lost" again is the immediate priority for the airline industry.
May 30, 2014 -- Updated 1536 GMT (2336 HKT)
This handout photo taken on April 7, 2014 and released on April 9, 2014 by Australian Defence shows Maritime Warfare Officer, Sub Lieutenant Ryan Penrose watching HMAS Success as HMAS Perth approaches for a replenishment at sea while searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. Two fresh signals have been picked up Australian ship Ocean Shield in the search for missing Malaysian flight MH370, raising hopes that wreckage will be found within days even as black box batteries start to expire.
Was the sound of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 striking the water captured by ocean devices used to listen for signs of nuclear blasts?
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2229 GMT (0629 HKT)
What was believed to be the best hope of finding the missing plane is now being called a false hope. Rene Marsh explains.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2105 GMT (0505 HKT)
Involved parties, including the manufacturer Boeing, are bracing for a long public relations siege.
May 29, 2014 -- Updated 1134 GMT (1934 HKT)
Official: The four acoustic pings at the center of the search for Flight 370 are no longer believed to have come from the plane's black boxes.
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
There is one fundamental question which continues to swirl: Has Inmarsat got its numbers right?
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 1213 GMT (2013 HKT)
Data from communications between satellites and missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 was released
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 0742 GMT (1542 HKT)
Family members of the people aboard missing plane want independent investigators to review the newly released satellite data.
May 21, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
CNN's Richard Quest explains what kind of information should be contained in the Inmarsat data from Flight MH370.
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
The underwater search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane will effectively be put on hold this week, and may not resume until August at the earliest.
May 19, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
Movie-makers in Cannes have announced they're making a thriller based on the disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370.
May 6, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
The search for the missing Boeing 777 has gone on for eight weeks now. CNN's David Molko looks back at this difficult, emotional assignment.
ADVERTISEMENT