The search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight has picked up some momentum this weekend, now that authorities have spotted debris in an area of roughly 14,000 square miles in the southern Indian Ocean -- a significantly smaller footprint than where they were looking this time last week.
The story of the search began more than two weeks ago on Saturday, March 8, when Malaysia Airlines realized it had lost track of its jet. The next day, British satellite company Inmarsat immediately began doing calculations based on a series of hourly "pings," as the plane and one of the company's satellites tried to communicate with each other.
Triangulating those pings seems to have given Inmarsat a pretty good idea of where the plane went, along one of two routes, to the north and to the south. But that information wouldn't properly shape the search for over a week.
The Malaysians apparently didn't receive Inmarsat's analysis until Wednesday, March 12. Quite why it took so long to be channeled through the British and American governments is an open question. But even after the Malaysians got the data, it then took another three days for the information to be released -- and then only partially.
Looking only at the last communication between the plane and the satellite that took place at 8:11 a.m., and apparently ignoring all those other pings and the complex triangulations based on them, Malaysia published a map of two vast search corridors where the plane might have ended up, one to the north and one to the south.
During those critical days after the flight went missing -- when debris from any crash might have been sinking or simply drifting far away, when survivors could have clinging to life aboard rafts--multiple countries were sending ships to scour the waters in the Gulf of Thailand and then later in the South China Sea, all areas far from where Inmarsat's data was pointing. Two days after Inmarsat's experts had already done the math, searchers were still inspecting debris off the coast of Vietnam.
Why the delay? The Malaysian government said it was in part because even after receiving the analysis, the country needed to process the data and consult U.S. officials. By the time this widely-shared map below was released, it had been a full week since the plane had disappeared.
This map wildly expanded the places where the plane could be. (Remember when Kyrgystan was a distinct possibility?) But it also eliminated areas where ships and planes had already spent days looking for the passenger jet. And it led the way to the next critical breakthrough.
On Tuesday, March 18, three days after the map above was released, Australia announced that together with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, it had narrowed down the search area to just three percent of the southern corridor. The Americans and Australians took the Inmarsat triangulations – in other words, data from each of those hourly pings -- along with some assumptions about the plane's speed, and out came a much smaller search area, shown below.