Chinese images of ‘floating objects’ now a source of mystery, not excitement

One of the images from the Chinese agency.
One of the Chinese satellite images. (China Center for Resource Satellite Data and Application)

BEIJING – For China, the day began with so much hope, yet ended in denials and embarrassment.

Grainy images from a Chinese satellite released Wednesday night showed possible debris from the vanished Malaysia Airlines jet, grabbing headlines and riveting people worldwide with the prospect that the long search was finally over.

The three large floating objects sparked new theories and sent ships and aircraft scurrying to the location. But almost 24 hours later, the images were thoroughly dismissed by Malaysian leaders, who said they were told by the Chinese Embassy “that the images were released by mistake.”

Given China's criticism of the Malaysia-led investigation, there was an element of schadenfreude in the reaction to China's admission of a mistake. To many, however, it was unclear what the mistake was – whether the photos had been discounted but were released anyway or whether they didn’t show the objects they purported to.

Deepening the mystery is that fact that the images were taken Sunday but not posted online until late Wednesday. They were released on the Web site of a relatively unknown Chinese agency called the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense and went unnoticed by many for several hours. Chinese officials have explained neither why the satellite photos were posted so long after they were taken nor their poor quality.

One reason the images may have been published despite lack of confirmation is China's eagerness to present a proactive image of its search efforts to its citizens. Since Sunday, the government has released a steady stream of propaganda-like news and images through its state-controlled media.

On Wednesday, for example, its military released images of Chinese search ships with a headline saying they had found life jackets and oil drums. After a period of brief excitement online, the defense ministry said the life jackets were determined to have come from a ship rather than an airplane.

China has made itself visible in the search in part in reaction to criticism from its citizens that their government hasn't done enough to protect citizens abroad – and because out of the 239 passengers on board the plane, 154 were from China or Taiwan.

As for the mysterious satellite photos that went bust, one Chinese satellite researcher involved in the effort said it was hard to verify or get more information about the three objects because of the limited number of images available from Chinese satellites.

The three mystery objects were identified on images captured at 11 a.m. March 9, but Chi Tianhe, who works at the government-affiliated think tank Chinese Academy of Sciences, said researchers have not had access to earlier images from that same site.

Most Chinese satellites were pointed at the area in question only after the plane vanished, and images are limited to set intervals during which satellites passed over that area, Chi said. Other countries, however, may have captured images of other areas from other times, he said. NASA and the U.S. government in particular, he pointed out, have considerable satellite assets to draw on.

It took Chinese investigators roughly a full day to finish analyzing images taken from an area of about 46,000 square miles near where the plane disappeared, according to Chi.

There are two main groups involved in the Chinese effort, he said. The Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth, where Chi works, has been helping analyze satellite images. The photos of the three unknown objects were captured by the second group: the government’s China Center for Resource Satellite Data and Application (CRESDA).

Another researcher involved in the effort said there has been competition and pressure between the two group to find the first sign of debris.

On Tuesday, a full day before the satellite images were released, CRESDA posted a short explanation of its work in support of the search.

The center said the quality of images it had received so far were “pretty good,” which raises questions about why exactly the photos released Wednesday night were so grainy. China hasn't explained the poor quality of those images, but it could be related to guardedness about revealing the extent of defense capabilities.

In the Tuesday statement, CRESDA said it began tapping eight satellites March 8, the day after the plane disappeared, and had received a large amount of data and images that were being inspected. Those inspections appear to have led to Wednesday night’s release of the satellite images of possible debris at the coordinates 105.63 E, 6.7 N. 

Following a news conference in Kuala Lumpur — where Malaysians thoroughly shot down Chinese satellite images — many Chinese remained defensive.

“Why does Malaysia Airlines have to disparage China’s satellite data?” asked one user on the Chinese version of Twitter.

“Press conferences by Malaysia Airlines do only one thing, that is, deny everything,” harrumphed another.

Other comments suggest that the satellite blunder wouldn't do much to blunt their week-long criticism of Malaysia’s handling.

“Up until now, it seems that Malaysia has only confirmed one thing: MH370 flight is missing!”

Xu Jing contributed to this report.

William Wan is The Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He served previously as a religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent.
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