U.S. spy satellites did not detect a midair explosion at the time that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 lost contact with air traffic controllers or in the hours immediately afterward, senior U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News on Wednesday.
"That's one thing that is particularly vexing," said one.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that analysis of data from "national technical means" -- a euphemism for spy satellites -- found nothing "to corroborate or indicate a midair explosion" in the period surrounding the jet's disappearance on Saturday (Friday in the U.S.).
The U.S. Space Based Infrared (SBIR) satellite system, which is designed to identify heat signatures in real time, can -- and has -- detected exploding aircraft, according to a second official,. Indeed, it has provided evidence in the past of events as small as artillery fire and the launch of anti-aircraft missiles, the official said.
Air Force Space Command
The Space Based Infrared (SBIR) system satellite.
The system uses dedicated infrared satellites and sensors on other military spacecraft to gather the data.
Jeffrey T. Richelson, an intelligence historian who has written extensively about SBIR and its predecessors, agrees and says the intelligence community has supplemented civilian investigations of missing aircraft in the past.
Both the second intelligence official and Richelson said the U.S. intelligence community archives the satellite system's infrared signals by type - explosions, detonations and launches -- so new incidents can quickly be identified.
In his book, "America's Space Sentinels," Richelson cited several examples of where SBIR and its predecessor, the DSP system, detected explosions of civilian and military aircraft in midair, including the blasts that took down TWA Flight 800 in July 1996 and a midair collision between U.S. and German military aircraft off the Atlantic coast of South Africa in September 1997.
In an email exchange with NBC News this week, Richelson also said that DSP data were examined for clues in the aftermath of Air France Flight 447's disappearance while en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in June 2009. It also has detected in real time the crashes of several U.S. military aircraft.
Data from SBIR are downloaded and initially analyzed at Buckley Air National Guard Base in Aurora, Colo.
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First published March 12 2014, 11:17 AM
Robert Windrem is an investigative reporter/producer with NBC News. His specialty is international security, on-camera commentary on international security for MSNBC and writer on international security for NBCNews.com
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Winner of 45 national journalism awards, including an Emmy as well as Dupont-Columbia, National Press Club, Sigma Delta Chi, three Edward R. Murrow and eight National Headliners Club awards. He has also been nominated for an Emmy 19 times.
Windrem produced the first report on U.S. television on Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda in January 1997; produced the first inside look of CIA Headquarters on U.S. television in February 1994; arranged and produced exclusive interviews with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in New York in September 2006, and in Tehran in July 2008. He also produced extensive reports on "Nightly News" regarding nuclear proliferation in Israel, South Africa, Iraq and Iran as well as reports on the Mexican drug wars; al Qaeda; US drone attacks in Pakistan, the Boston Marathon bombings, the Washington, D.C., snipers; campaign finance scandals, defense procurement abuse, and intelligence technology, among many others.
He contributed to NBC News documentaries on the war on terrorism, Hurricane Katrina and nuclear strategy.
Windrem co-wrote with William E. Burrows, "Critical Mass: the Dangerous Race for Superweapons in a Fragmenting World", Simon & Schuster, New York, 1994.
He has appeared more than 300 times as an expert on national security issues on MSNBC, NBC News and CNBC as well as CBC in Canada, BBC in the UK, Channel 2 in Israel and ABC in Australia. Most recently he served as a consultant on an Israeli TV documentary on Arnon Milchan, the Hollywood producer and arms dealer.
He is a graduate of Seton Hall University with a degree in communications arts. He also pursued a graduate degree in American Studies at Seton Hall.