Infrared-Equipped Satellites Help Search for Missing Airplane

June 2, 2009

Data from the U.S. Air Force Defense Support Program (DSP) missile warning satellites collected early June 1 over the central Atlantic Ocean is being studied to see if it detected the impact or a fiery breakup of the Air France Airbus A330 that disappeared enroute to Paris, France, from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil early on June 1.

Data from the U.S. Air Force Defense Support Program (DSP) missile warning satellites collected early June 1 over the central Atlantic Ocean is being studied to see if it detected the impact or a fiery breakup of the Air France Airbus A330 that disappeared en route to Paris, France, from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil early on June 1.

Two or three DSPs constantly scan that region of the Earth with powerful infrared telescopes, and it is hoped that the data collected will help investigators locate the position of the aircraft when it went down and possibly provide information about what caused the tragic accident.

Rotating at 6 rpm and orbiting the Earth at nearly 23,000 miles in altitude, the DSPs are designed to detect the heat from the launch of land- or sea-based ballistic missiles. Each satellite carries a 6,000-element mercury–cadmium–telluride detector that can discriminate not only missile launches but other types of thermal phenomena as well. This would include lightning, meteorites, and aircraft that are on fire.

Data from other U.S. military space systems, including the new Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS), are also being evaluated to see if their sensors were pointed at the area when the aircraft vanished.