Astronaut: New satellites could track missing planes

Retired astronaut Chris Hadfield speaks at TED2014 in Vancouver, B.C.

Story highlights

  • Former space station commander Hadfield: New satellites could help locate planes
  • First of shoebox-sized satellites released last month from the space station
  • Planet Labs, a San Francisco company, says they will provide unprecedented imagery
  • Hadfield: If Flight 370 crashed, wreckage will eventually be found

A fleet of tiny satellites released from the International Space Station could be a tool to help solve future aviation mysteries like the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, said retired astronaut Chris Hadfield, who commanded the space station for five months last year.

Speaking to the media after giving a talk at the opening session of the TED2014 conference Monday, Hadfield said that the shoebox-sized satellites, once fully deployed, will cover the entire planet with frequently refreshed images at a resolution down to 4 meters and could have helped in a mystery such as the question of what happened to the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777.

Planet Labs, a San Francisco-based company, arranged for the first group of the satellites to be released from the space station last month. Hadfield said those satellites are in initial testing.

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Asked by CNN to comment, Planet Labs provided a statement by its co-founder and CEO, William Marshall, a former NASA scientist, who is due to speak later this week at TED: "Planet Labs just last month deployed a fleet of 28 satellites, Flock 1, from the International Space Station. This is the largest Earth imaging constellation in history. We are turning on each of the satellites and are now putting them into position. With this constellation, we will measure the planet on a more regular basis to enable various applications. One of those applications is disaster response, including natural and man-made disasters. Other applications range from monitoring deforestation to helping to improve agricultural yields to monitoring urban growth." Another 100 such satellites are in the works, according to the Financial Times.

Hadfield said "tracking one thin aluminum tube" like the Boeing 777, in a place that is not heavily covered by radar is very hard.

"Obviously something happened fast and deliberate, exactly what process, whether it was the crew themselves or someone forcing themselves in, we don't know," Hadfield said. He said he suspects that if the aircraft did crash, wreckage will eventually be found.

How TED got famous

In his talk on the TED stage, Hadfield gripped the audience's attention with a message urging people to conquer irrational fears, with images of the Earth's beauty from space and with a performance on guitar of a portion of David Bowie's "Space Oddity," a song he also sang while weightless on the space station. His video, one of about 100 he shot on the space station, went viral.

Astronauts train themselves to overcome fear, and thus are willing to take considerable risks, whether being launched on a rocket or walking in space, Hadfield said. By contrast, some people will let themselves be paralyzed by unreasoning fear of spiders; the way to conquer that is to walk through spider webs (assuming the spiders aren't venomous).

"There's a difference between danger and fear," he said after the talk. And Hadfield said that, incongruously, "I'm afraid of heights," but had mostly overcome it through training.

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