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30 May 2014

11 weeks and counting in the search for MH370

30 May 2014 - It's been over 11 weeks since Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 went missing, and it is likely that it will be two months or more before a search of the Indian Ocean for the missing 777 will resume. Among the recent highlights are the following:

  • The Malaysian government, specifically the Ministry of Transport, has released very detailed data about the information from Inmarsat that was used to narrow the search area.

  • While some recent media reports have cited unofficial sources that have suggested that acoustic signals heard several weeks ago were not from the aircraft (a discovery that led to an extensive underwater search in the area of the pings), there has yet to be any official announcement from the investigating authorities.

  • The Australian government has concluded that the search in the vicinity of the acoustic detections is complete, and that general area (about 850 square kilometers) is now being discounted as the final resting place of MH370.

  • The Australian government, which is leading the search for the aircraft on behalf of the Malaysian government, has suspended its active search for the aircraft, and is planning an extensive mapping effort of an area of the Indian Ocean that is about 60,000 square kilometers, or about the size of the state of West Virginia, or the nation of Sri Lanka.

  • The mapping effort will take about three months, and the Australia Transport Safety Bureau, which is leading the search effort, plans to resume the search for the aircraft in August.

29 May 2014 update from the Australian JACC
ATSB determination of search area
Ocean mapping effort
Satellite communications logs
Additional information from the Ministry of Transport MH370 page

02 May 2014

The first satellite has a new name

Last month,'s first satellite was launched on the same SpaceX mission that was resupplying the ISS (CRS-3). Heading to the International Space Station was its primary mission, and one of its secondary payloads included KickSat, which carried's first satellite.

About the satellite
The KickSat is designed to deploy 104 miniature (roughly 3.2 x 3.2 cm in size and weighing about 5 grams) satellites called Sprites. The deployment will occur on Sunday May 4th at about 4:00 PM EDT (2000 UTC).

After deploying, the Sprites, which contain solar cells, a gyroscope, a magnetometer and a radio transmitter, will broadcast messages to a network of ground stations. The Sprite will broadcast a short five character message, "ASC96," which represents the site, and the year it went live, 1996.

What is the purpose of these satellites
Should radio broadcasts from theses Sprite satellites be received on the ground, they would have accomplished as much as the very first satellite, Sputnik 1, which was launched in 1957 by the Soviet Union.

The purpose of the Sprites is not to demonstrate the ability to broadcast a radio signal from space, but to demonstrate the ability for a technologically sophisticated satellite to be successfully carry out a mission in orbit at a very low cost. How low? In the case of the satellite, the cost was $300.

Best side benefit from the KickSat project
Perhaps much more important than the technological achievement is the fact that KickSat proves that the exploration of space is not just for wealthy corporations or nation states, but is within reach of small organizations and even individuals.

It also gives people ideas, especially the generations of people who didn't witness the highlights of the space age on television in the 1960s and 1970s, and who may think that space is a realm that used to encourage a lot of innovation, but not any more.

Honoring the past and inspiring the future
It was only after the satellite successfully launched that I took the time to reflect on the journey that put the satellite into orbit. I realized that it didn't start with a KickStarter project, but rather decades before on a farm in south Texas. My grandparents, Winfred and Minnie Curtis (pictured below with their Ford Model A and a flock of chickens), raised their eight children on a 68-acre farm in Atascosa County, TX.

Winfred and Minnie Curtis

Although they were far from wealthy and raised their children during the Depression when educational and career prospects for their children were anything but bright, three of my uncles ended up in aviation. One as an aerospace engineer, another in aircraft manufacturing, and a third had a career in the Air Force.

Because of their example, I was never intimidated about the idea of having my own career in aerospace, or about launching a satellite into space. While all of the family members who lived on the Atascosa farm have passed on, their legacy lives on.

To honor their sacrifices in at least one small way, the family has agreed on the new name I've chosen for the satellite. From now on, it will be known as the Atascosa 1.

SpaceX launch carrying the Atascosa 1

Related information
KickSat project background
Interview with Sprite designer Zac Manchester

01 May 2014

Malaysia Ministry of Transport releases preliminary report on flight MH370

1 May 2014 - The Malaysia Ministry of Transport released a preliminary report on the Malaysia Airlines 777 that went missing on 8 March 2014. As of the release date (report dated 9 April 2014 but released 1 May 2014), the aircraft is still missing, and no part of the aircraft has been recovered. The highlights of the report include the following:

  • At about 1:38 am Kuala Lumpur time on 8 March 2014, Vietnamese air traffic control authorities contacted Kuala Lumpur Air Traffic Control Centre about the whereabouts of flight MH370.

  • After all effort to communicate and locate the aircraft failed, Malaysian authorities activated the Kuala Lumpur Rescue Coordination Centre. This activation occurred at 5:30 am, almost four hours after the Vietnamese authorities contacted the Kuala Lumpur Air Traffic Control Centre about the flight.

  • A total 82 aircraft and 84 vessels representing 26 countries participated in search and rescue efforts.
  • In accordance with international agreements, specifically ICAO Annex 13, countries with official representatives in the investigation include the US, UK, China, Australia, and Malaysia.

  • Organizations providing technical advisors include Boeing, FAA, and NTSB from the US; Inmarsat and AAIB from the UK; as well as Malaysian Airlines.

  • Citing the experience of flight MH370 and of Air France flight 447, both of which went missing over remote stretches of ocean, The Ministry of Transport recommended that ICAO examine the safety benefits of introducing a standard for real time tracking of commercial air transport aircraft.

Issues raised by the investigation
One of the key frustrations of many of those involved directly in the investigation and with many airline safety experts has been the delays in getting information to the organizations involved in the investigation and with search and rescue efforts.

Former NTSB board member John Goglia summarized many of these issues in an AINonline article released on 1 May 2014, and in the article Goglia suggests that Malaysia’s reluctance seeking assistance from other countries with more expertise and experience in accident investigations may have been do in part to misplaced national pride, and that this may not have been considered when ICAO Annex 13 was drafted.

Related resources
Preliminary report from the Malaysia Ministry of Transport
John Goglia comments on ICAO Annex 13 flight MH370 page