How could an airliner just disappear?

(CNN) – The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has left people wondering… what happened?

On Saturday, air traffic control lost contact with the Beijing-bound flight about an hour after takeoff with no distress signal from the plane.

In the digital age when we’ve got GPS in our cell phones and cars, how do you lose an airplane? Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 also had GPS, and a transponder sending signals from the cockpit to air-traffic control.
The jet was tracked by radar… but now that we know the transponder was not operational when the plane disappeared.

“It’s not going to do anything anymore,” said Aviation Safety Consultant Bill McCabe. “Once it’s gone off it’s not going to come back on. From a GPS standpoint, all that is, is mainly for the aircraft to know where it is, you know for the pilots to know where they are. There’s not something inherent in the GPS that says ‘Here I am, over here.'”

This is now a high-tech search. Pentagon officials tell CNN the Navy’s using MH-60 helicopters, at least one P-3 Orion plane in the air; along with 34 planes and 40 ships from ten other countries.

The U.S. aircraft have electro-optical infrared sensors that can detect movement. The Pentagon won’t say if it’s using military satellites. But McCabe believes they are using those satellites – taking some very high-res photos.

“They can be very precise, right down to the size of a car or less than that if they need be, so you can see doors, or wings, or engines, or something like that,” said McCabe. “They also have the capability of using the maritime, the Navy assets, using sonar.”

And the public’s being pulled into a high-tech search, through crowdsourcing: getting a service by enlisting large groups of people online.

DigitalGlobe, a company which operates 5 commercial-imaging satellites, is using satellites to take high-res pictures of the area where the Malaysia Airlines jet might have gone down. They’re inviting anyone to go onto their platform called ‘Tomnod’ to view the pictures.  More than 25,000 people logged on the first day, to help search.

“They see small segments of the satellite image in an incredibly zoomed-in fashion,” said Dr. Shay Har-Noy, Senior Director at DigitalGlobe. “They are then invited to drop tags and pins where they see either a boat, an oil slick, an area with debris.”

When DigitalGlobe collects a certain volume of reliable tags in one area of a picture, they share that with authorities. So far they’ve gotten about 1 million page-views per hour.

The traffic’s been so heavy, the website’s had difficulty staying up.

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