The most comprehensive map of the MH17 debris field to date was published by the Dutch on 9 August.
According to the map‘s key:
The total shaded area is that searched by the Ukrainians, according to their own statements.
The yellow circles are impacts on the ground
The green areas are those searched by the international team
The red areas are access denied
The orange areas are unsafe areas
Debris fields are obviously key to understanding the reasons behind a plane crash. The heavier items (to be more precise those with a higher ballistic coefficient) have more momentum. Items with smaller ballistic coefficient (eg foam balls) will be more likely to be carried by the wind. In this case we find the “crash site” where the central section of the plane came to rest, on the east of this map, just to the south of Grabovka/Hrabove.
The Wall Street Journal and @paulsonne have produced some useful graphics showing photographs of different parts of the plane at the crash site, which part of the plane they are a part of and where they are located in the debris field according to Google maps.
Key questions the investigators will be looking at include
1) Was the plane hit by a missile?
At this stage, it seems likely the plane was hit by the missile from a BUK system. An OSCE official claimed to have seen “Machine gun-like holes” but he is not crash investigator and it seems a BUK’s missile can produce damage which to the untrained eye does look like machine gun fire.
It is also unlikely a military plane in the Ukrainian air force, such as the SU-25, could have reached the altitude and speed to be able to hit the MH17 with machine gun fire. As well as the signs of damage to the aircraft, parts of any missile used will most likely be found among the debris.
2) Where was the plane actually hit?
From the debris field and other data it should be possible to determine where the plane was hit. The Russians have published satellite photographs showing a group of BUK launchers in the general area (at Zaroshchenske 23km south of Polove in the top left of the map) on the morning of the downing, whilst the Ukrainians have tried to pin the blame on a BUK they say was in rebel control seen near Snizhne. It is possible, though unlikely, information on where the plane was hit will rule out one or both of these possible launch locations based on the maximum range of the particular missile used.
It should be noted that many things about the downing of MH17 are probably already clear to the crash investigators. However, there could be complications which might hinder the investigation:
a) The investigation is highly politicised and we have seen how this leads to faulty investigations which assign responsibility to the wrong people. An example in point was the Lockerbie disaster. The investigation and trial saw a probably innocent Libyan official convicted, largely due to the USA undermining international justice by paying a “witness” to give crucial evidence at trial.
b) The site has not been secured by a neutral party. The rebels have had control of the site and it is possible they could have planted or removed evidence. If pro-Kiev forces do gain control of the site, this problem will be doubled as they would likely use the opportunity to steer the investigation towards condemnation of Russia.
c) The chronic lack of security at the site, which Ukrainian forces have been trying to gain control of, despite a Security Council resolution ordering them not to, makes the investigators job more difficult.
It will likely not be possible to move all the debris into a hanger to reconstruct the plane as would be ideal, although the investigation could stretch out to two years or more so the opportunity may present itself.
What we know about the MH17 crash to date from open source data is here.
Comments below are welcome on the debris field, links to debris field research, what the debris tells us and so forth.
(12/08 minor updates – thanks CW and CL)