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01.14.2020

How Maxar Provided Critical Evidence of What Caused the Ukrainian Airliner to Crash in Iran

By: Maxar Technologies


Read Time: 5 minutes

On Wednesday, January 8, 2020, just hours after Iranian missiles hit United States bases in Iraq, additional reports began to surface about an airliner crash near Tehran. The incident escalated into a major geopolitical event as speculation swirled around what caused Ukrainian International Airlines Flight PS752 to crash, killing all 176 passengers and crew onboard.

Maxar’s News Bureau and FirstLook event imaging teams immediately went into action to collect visual evidence of the crash site and surrounding area. Using open-source intelligence (OSINT), including a European Space Agency (ESA) Sentinel-2 image collected hours after the crash, the teams quickly pinpointed the crash location and planned high-resolution imagery collections on the next-available WorldView satellite orbits.

Maxar team members used SecureWatch to pinpoint the location of the PS752 crash site in a mid-resolution Sentinel-2 from January 8, 2020. The image above displays a false-color composite using Sentinel-2 near infrared to make the burned crash location (black) more visible against vegetation (red).

FirstLook successfully tasked WorldView-2 to collect a 50 cm resolution, multispectral image on the morning of Thursday, January 9, 2020. Maxar’s Mission Operations Center downlinked the image to a ground station, processed it and then delivered the image to Maxar’s AWS cloud-based SecureWatch platform within two hours. Using SecureWatch, News Bureau analysts studied the image and built media-ready graphics of the crash site for distribution to a global network of news outlets. The media routinely leverage Maxar satellite imagery as a visual evidence source in their reporting for stories including natural disasters, political events and human-caused catastrophes.

WorldView-2’s high-resolution image captured on January 9, 2020 shows the PS752 crash debris sites (circled in yellow).

As Maxar analyzed the satellite imagery, The New York Times received a cell phone video from a source that claimed the video showed a surface-to-air missile hitting the airliner. At this time, Iran claimed to have no role in the crash and blamed unspecified technical problems for the accident.

Cell phone video leaked to The New York Times allegedly showed PS752 being struck by a ground-fired missile.

The New York Times and separately MSNBC worked directly with Maxar to pinpoint the location where the source took the video. Determining if the video was recorded near the crash site in Tehran was critical to validating its authenticity. The teams used a technique called “geo-location” to identify buildings and other identifiable objects in the video, and tie those notable features to the WorldView-2 image. Using this technique, the teams determined that the video was genuinely filmed from the precise vantage point in Parand, Iran that the source claimed and it strongly suggested that the airliner was struck by a missile

MSNBC aired a story which explains how MSNBC and Maxar News Bureau analysts used the January 9th WorldView-2 image to verify where the cell phone video was recorded. Locations in the Maxar satellite image of the Parand neighborhood in Tehran on the left correspond with objects in the video frames in the center and right. Together, MSNBC and Maxar determined that the video was shot between building A and equipment B.

This evidence became a significant part of both the New York Times and MSNBC reporting on Friday, January 10, 2020. The conclusive news stories, along with information coming from the Ukrainian’s on-site investigation and other groups, likely led the Iranian government to reverse their position. On Saturday, January 11, 2020, the Iranian government released a statement that they knowingly but unintentionally shot down the airliner with a surface-to-air missile.

The Iranian government reversed its statements on Jan. 11, 2020 and admitted fault for shooting down PS752.

Even as the geopolitical tensions were unwinding, Maxar efforts did not cease. Also on Saturday, January 11, 2020, Maxar’s WorldView-2 and WorldView-3 satellites collected new images in and around the plane crash location. The News Bureau analysts used these images to determine that the crash site had largely been cleared and the debris moved to a secured location in Tehran where international investigators were analyzing the plane components.

Maxar’s WorldView-2 and WorldView-3 satellites collected new images on Saturday, January 11, 2020, which shows that much of the PS752 crash debris was moved to a secured facility for further investigation and analysis.

This airline crash and subsequent investigation is a notable example of the value of commercial Earth intelligence capabilities for monitoring and global transparency. Maxar is proud of our teams for collaborating to collect crucial evidence about this incident. The News Bureau’s established partnership with trusted media organizations provided the imagery and analysis to the journalists and our customers who were able to connect it with other evidence and influence a just conclusion. Events like this strengthen our resolve to bring Maxar’s capabilities to complex world problems and continue our Purpose, For a Better World.

To learn more about SecureWatch and request a custom demo, visit the SecureWatch product page.

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