Satellite imagery expert: Indian Ocean search is "middle of nowhere"

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Search crews looking for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane now believe there that the debris spotted by satellite in the Indian Ocean five days ago may have sunk. The other issue is that the black boxes which send out a signal to help locate them will run out of battery power soon.

Sean O'Connor spends every day searching and analyzing pictures from space. WTHR had an eye-opening conversation with him about the time, the technology and the difficulty of finding something in the middle of nowhere.

It's as if the whole world and everything on it can be seen from a computer on in Sean O'Connor's Indianapolis kitchen. He points to pictures of eight towed missile launchers in Russia, then scrolls around the world, showing us an anti-piracy base in Somalia. Next up is a US air base, a pick-up truck on the tarmac.

So why are satellites having such a hard time spotting an airliner or its debris floating in the Indian ocean?

"You have to think in terms of space," O'Connor explained. "An airplane is large but the area you are trying to search for is huge.  That airplane represents a minuscule space you are searching in."

O'Connor finds things for a living. The former air force intelligence officer is a satellite image analyst for Jane's, one of the world's foremost authorities on security and intelligence.  

"I don't envy those guys going through all those images," he said.

They are searching images for something measured in square feet floating in an area spanning thousands of square miles. There's no land and no starting point.

"This is the real definition of the middle of nowhere," O'Connor pointed out.

Finding these two clues, blurry black and white images of possible plane wreckage, took analysts days.  

"In terms of shading and color, then the wave caps in the picture, if it were smaller and you weren't paying attention you could miss something little like that," O'Connor said.

By comparison, he has it easy. In his searches there are landmarks, roadways, air strips, rivers and tips to follow, in areas of the world routinely watched military and commercial satellites.  Many searches start by using Google Earth.

But the Indian Ocean is another world. 

"Being in the middle of nowhere, there is nothing. Nobody until now has had a reason to focus on that part of the world. Nobody is watching," O'Connor said." But now there is a tragic mystery, the whole world is watching."

O'Connor says it can take days to carefully analyze satellite images. In an ocean, debris photographed one day may have drifted way or sunk the next.

Although computers can do some of the searching, O'Connor says even they can be confused by waves and changing weather conditions.

Meantime, Australia's government says the search, which is taking place 1,500 miles from the western Australian city of Perth, will continue.