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Satellite Signals From Missing Plane Raise Questions


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene. We have an update now on that missing Malaysia Airlines plane. Communications satellites continued to receive signals from the plane at least five and a half hours after it disappeared over the Gulf of Thailand. That's according to a source familiar with the investigation who spoke to NPR. This information raises even more questions about the fate of the jet that disappeared nearly a week ago with 239 people on board. For more we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt in Shanghai. And Frank, can you walk us through what we know about this plane's disappearance and what's new now according to this information?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, David, we understand that the plane disappeared around 1:30 last Saturday morning over the Gulf of Thailand, and authorities in Malaysia weren't sure where it went. Now sources - a source has told us, and they've told other news organizations as well, that the plane continued to ping a satellite for many hours after it disappeared over the Gulf of Thailand. And this is coming from satellite data. Now, this suggests that the plane was either in the air or on the ground but that it was still operating. We don't - the data won't say probably exactly where it was, but in order for the plane to continue to send these signals, it has to have power, this thing has to be powered.

GREENE: Okay, and that's important. I mean we're not learning anything about where the plane might have been, on the ground, in the air, but it's sending some sort of satellite signal. How does the system work exactly?

LANGFITT: Well, it's called the Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System, and it's on I think all planes. And what it does, it allows pilots and other people to send text. And the way it works, it'll work off a satellite system in the air, and what happens is the satellite will ping a plane every hour, just to make sure that it's still there and using the satellite system. And so what happened is, over the night, we're told, that the satellite was pinging the plane every hour and the plane was responding, basically saying, yeah, I'm awake, I'm still here. It didn't send any data, but it said it was still operating.

GREENE: Is there any chance that they might have this wrong, that this is just bad data or a false positive somehow?

LANGFITT: That's a great question, David. Of course given there's been so much misinformation about this story, it involves the families of these passengers. I talked to the owner of the satellites that talked to the plane that night. It's Inmarsat. They're a very big company. They're based in London. They wouldn't talk specifically about this case and they cited the ongoing investigation, but they said - I talked to David Coiley, he's the vice president of aviation there at Inmarsat, and he said these signals are very reliable, and he said he was - basically they're over 99 percent. It's highly unusual to get a false positive in this system, and basically it would show that it was still operating.

GREENE: I mean, Frank, you mentioned the families of people who were onboard that plane, and they're hanging on every development here. I mean what - how might this information affect the search for the plane? We've had these ships and planes, I mean in these areas, just searching and searching for hours and hours.

LANGFITT: Well, the Malaysian officials had a press conference today and they said they are aware of the satellite data, they are going to be talking to United States authorities about the satellite data. They wouldn't tie it to any of their decision-making, but what they said is they have expanded the investigation and the search west towards the Andaman Sea and into the Indian Ocean. Of course they were looking at the other side in the East, so the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea before. And now they're expanding over in that direction. And the reason they said they're doing that is they did see a plane later in the morning heading in that direction. They couldn't identify it or certain as this flight. But that's what they're investigating now, to see in fact if the plane was heading to the west into the Indian Ocean.

GREENE: All right, well, we'll be continuing to follow this story, which seems to have a new development by the hour, by the day. NPR's Frank Langfitt joining us from Shanghai. Frank, thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.