Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Satellite observations and the Russian Metrojet crash in the Sinai [updated]

[updated 3 Nov 2015 14:00 UT]

On 31 October 2015 near 4:13 UTC, Kogalymavia Flight 9268, a Russian commercial flight by airliner Metrojet, crashed in the Egyptian Sinai desert, tragically killing all 224 people on board.

NBC News now reports that according to a US "senior defense official", around the time of this tragedy, a heat signal has been detected over the Sinai by "an American infrared satellite". According to NBC News, the heat signal detection points to an explosion (either mid-air or when the aircraft hit the ground), and the quoted official reportedly said that there is "no indication" that a surface-to-air missile hit the aircraft.

The satellite system in question which detected the heat signal is most likely the classified SBIRS (Space-Based InfraRed System), which I discussed before in the context of the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over the eastern Ukraine a year ago.

It is one of two US military systems (there is the older DSP now being replaced by SBIRS) meant for the early detection of (intercontinental) missile launches. These satellites look for the infrared (heat) signature of such launches. For more details see my earlier post on MH17, and this detailed information sheet by US Defense itself available on the web.

After reading NBC's claim of a satellite detection of this latest aircraft tragedy, I checked which of the SBIRS satellites would have had coverage of the area in question at 31 October 2015, 4:13 UT.

click image to enlarge

Two SBIRS satellites had excellent coverage: the geostationary SBIRS GEO 2 (2013-011A) satellite at longitude 20 E, and the piggyback SBIRS package on the TRUMPET-FO satellite USA 184 (2006-027A) in a Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO).

click images to enlarge

The apparent quick confirmation of a SBIRS detection of the Sinai crash reported by NBC News not only shows the capabilities of the SBIRS system, but also begs the question why such information is still lacking with regard to the shootdown of MH17 over the Ukraine a year ago.

In my country, which lost 192 citizens in that tragedy, the downing of MH17 and the question of who is responsible for it are still a hot topic, newly fueled by the recent release of the report by the Dutch Safety Board which shows it was a BUK system that downed the aircraft.

There are tantalizing clues that SBIRS did detect the 2014 shootdown over the Ukraine: the day after the MH17 tragedy unfolded, a "senior US official" reportedly told CNN that a US military system "saw a heat signature at the time the airliner was hit".

This is a very similar statement as the one now reported in connection to the Sinai crash. At the time, I showed that three SBIRS satellites (the same two as indicated above, plus SBIRS GEO 1) had coverage of the Ukraine crash location.

Following that CNN report, this apparent infrared detection has gone into oblivion: there is no mention of it for example in the report of the Dutch Safety Board: the reconstruction of the area where the missile could have been launched is completely based on modelling from the damage pattern to the aircraft's cockpit.

I find it hard to believe, certainly given the anonymous "senior US official" quote to CNN directly after the disaster, that there are no SBIRS detections of the MH17 shootdown.

NATO interest in the area was high at that time, after all this was a quickly escalating conflict right at the border of NATO's and the European Union's influence sphere. The general perception was (and is) that Russia, increasingly seen as the new/old enemy of (east-) European freedom, is trying to expand it's own influence sphere into Europe, and is muscle-flexing towards the east European NATO members. Missiles should have been a natural point of interest to NATO, as a Ukrainian military aircraft had been shot down at high altitude in the days before the disaster with what must have been a state-of-the-art Surface-to-Air system, something which should be of concern to NATO, especially given a US military strategy that heavily relies on Air Supremacy. To me it seems that it would be very odd if US military systems like SBIRS were not watching the area.

UPDATE 3 Nov 2015, 14:00-14:30 UT:

In a Twitter conversation, Rainer Kresken rightfully points at  the weather conditions over the relevant part of the Ukraine during the MH17 tragedy. Cloud cover is detrimental to IR detections. But a SAM would still be detectable once it had cleared the cloud cover. According to the report of the Dutch Safety Board, the cloudbase present in the general area around the time of the crash was scattered and between 1000 and 5000 feet (300 meter to 1.5 km) with occasional peaks of the top of the cloud deck to FL350 (350 000 35 000 feet, 10.7 km). These latter were localized thunderstorms. Airfields in the vicinity report scattered clouds at 3300 feet (1 km) and a broken cloud cover at higher altitude, 10000 to 20000 feet (3 to 6 km). This all suggests that a missile would have been visible once clearing 1 km altitude, unless it was cruising through a cumulus tower from a thunderstorm.
Most relevant to me is still that tantalizing CNN quote of a "senior US official" reporting a heat signal, suggesting that there was a SBIRS detection of the missile above the cloud cover.

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