MH17 Debris Field

August 10, 2014 — 6 Comments

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

20140809-mh17-kaart-fasering-1600

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)

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6 responses to MH17 Debris Field

  1. 

    The satellite images that were used to make the main image are available as an interactive slider web-page at

    The map is a result of the dutch governmental reply to an independent investigation by rtlnieuws (a dutch commercial news agency).

    RTLnieuws bought satelite images of about 137 km2 of the area where MH17 had crashed. They bought images from 16th of july and the 26th july both taken around 09:00 in the morning. These images were analyzed by a company named NEO. This company used software to determine relevant differences between the two images. These differences were judged twice by experts to determine if these were trivial or not (i.e. moved garbage can, livestock, etc). The debris attributed to MH17 is on the map. From the satelite images it cannot be determined what the debris is.

    RTL nieuws published the map, and the dutch government reacted by a fact sheet which includes the map mentioned in the post above. The colors mean: GREEN: inspected by investigation teams. RED: Areas forbidden by the rebels to be entered : ORANGE: Uninvestigated area.

    The dutch investigation teams mentioned before in an interview that they were using satelite images.

    RTLnieuws is trying to get reporters in the unsearched north-west area, but has not yet been successfull. It is unclear who has control of the area of the crash site.

    The news agency also interviewed a refugee who claims to have seen the plane intact but burning breaking through the clouds and see it break into two. Couldn’t find a link on internet.

    (Source: blackbird69 from pprune)

  2. 

    1) “An OSCE official claimed to have seen “Machine gun holes” ” He actually said the holes were “machine-gun like.” X is like y, being widely taken as x = y, is annoying to see. FWIW I tried a rough measure on the fragments most likely used – maybe 13mm square? (see here) That would mean holes that size or a bit bigger. Petri has measured the holes in the fuselage as about 20 or 15-20 mm, which (to me, and Charles) seems pretty consistent with those frags, and not with a 30mm SU-25 auto-cannon.

    2) Increasingly, it seems MH17 was hit from ahead, slightly above, and a bit left of center. The pilot almost seems the exact target, with the windhsield, upper nose, forwrd roof, and forward port side taking hits at various angles. Same page, under direction of projectiles. This fits best with just what Kiev and the US State Dept., etc. have said – SA-11 from those fields south of Snizhne.

    What people really need to get is how little that really proves. Getting hung up on easy fixes, trying to blame the SU-25, has distracted people and let the clearer evidence keep seeming to point to the separatists or their allies. You were doing good work on that, and someone should continue it. The forensics are getting covered pretty good already, so if I can suggest next: more on that big picture!

    • 

      What is needed is more evidence. Its a jigsaw puzzle with a lot of pieces missing at present. It would be interesting to find out what satellite imagery is available of Eastern Ukraine (dates, times, resolutions) – both to the various intelligence communities and commercially.

  3. 

    I am disappointed that proper forensic metallurgy has not been discussed in regards to the providence of the penetrating fragments. I suspect that the OSCE doesn’t have the proper experts for this investigation to do argon glow discharge mass spectroscopy (GDMS) high resolution SEM with energy dispersive XRF mapping, and high resolution inductively coupled plasma mass spectroscopy (ICP-MS) at 0.001 AMU resolution.

    • 

      Thanks for the comment – yes it should certainly be possible to be sure what brought the plane down by examining the penetrating fragments. The investigation is being led by the Dutch Safety Board (not the OSCE) and they should be bringing in any experts required. They will be publishing an interim report, probably some time in the next couple of weeks, which should help us understand what forensic methods they are using.

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