Google Inc. is best known for finding information online, but sometimes the Internet search leader also works behind the scenes to look for missing people like renowned aviator Steve Fossett.
The Mountain View-based company has emerged as a potentially useful resource for search-and-rescue teams because of its connections to the dozens of contractors that provide satellite imagery for its popular Google Earth software.
While most of the images used in Google Earth's 3-D tours of the world are anywhere from six months to three years old, the company can request more recent pictures taken from space.
That's what happened this week as search-and-rescue teams hunted for clues that might help them determine what happened to Fossett after he took off in a plane Monday from a Nevada airstrip without providing a flight plan.
Richard Branson, a British billionaire who has financed and participated in some of Fossett's past adventures, said he and others were coordinating efforts with Google to see if any of the high-resolution pictures might include Fossett's plane, a Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon.
Google also helped obtain some of the satellite pictures that were used in an unsuccessful search earlier this year for acclaimed computer scientist Jim Gray after he disappeared on a yacht sailing from San Francisco. Google co-founder Sergey Brin is among the legion of young engineers who drew inspiration from Gray's pioneering work on database software decades ago.
A Google spokeswoman declined to discuss why the company became involved in the Fossett search. Branson apparently has a good relationship with Google, having participated in a charity event hosted by company co-founder Larry Page earlier this year.
DigitalGlobe, which supplies much of Google Earth's imagery, confirmed that Google called upon the Longmont, Colo.-based company for help Wednesday. Unfortunately, DigitalGlobe didn't have any pictures available from the area where Fossett took off Monday, said company spokesman Chuck Herring. DigitalGlobe doesn't expect to get any more images from that part of the country again until Saturday.
"We are partners with Google, so we always try to help out in any way we can," Herring said.