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Satellite Data Dump Slows Hunt for Traces of Missing Plane

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A satellite-imagery company said on Thursday that the sheer number of pictures covering a large swath of ocean explains why it took days to reveal what could be debris from the Malaysia Airlines jetliner that has been missing for nearly two weeks.

DigitalGlobe Inc., a Longmont, Colo.-based company that collects imagery for the U.S. government and other countries, as well as private companies, confirmed on Thursday that it had collected satellite images on March 16 that appeared to show debris that may be related to the disappearance of Flight MH370. It said it provided the images to Australian authorities, who released them earlier Thursday.

Image: Object 1 that is possibly associated with the missing flight MH370 search
Object 1 that is possibly associated with the missing flight MH370 search in the Indian Ocean off of Australia.Australian Maritime Safety Authority

“Given the extraordinary size of the current search area, the lengthy duration of the analysis effort was to be expected. Our constellation of five high-resolution imaging satellites captures more than 3 million square kilometers of earth imagery each day, and this volume of imagery is far too vast to search through in real time without an idea of where to look,” DigitalGlobe said in a blog post on its website.

The company said Australian authorities had begun combing through the imagery of the current search area only in the last few days, after the massive international effort was expanded to the southern Indian Ocean region and waters near Australia.

Malaysian officials described the images as a credible sign of a possible wreckage from the flight, which vanished on March 8 shortly after leaving Kuala Lumpur for Beijing with 239 people aboard.

Australian officials have cautioned that the debris in the pictures might not be related to the missing plane.

A DigitalGlobe spokesman declined to say whether the debris was spotted by the company's own analysts, government analysts or Internet users participating in a "crowdsourcing" effort launched by the company to help locate the plane.

— Reuters and NBC News staff

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