Search for Missing Malaysia Plane: There Are a Lot of Satellites Out There

Satellite images taken by China, Thailand and France help in plane search.

March 27, 2014— -- Satellite images gleaned from the French, Chinese, and Thailand have all made headlines in recent days for potentially showing debris in the search area for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.

The search for the plane has highlighted the fact that dozens of nations -- large and small -- have satellites in orbit that have the ability to take pictures of the earth below.

In addition, many private companies operate satellites that take photos they then sell to foreign governments, including the United States government, according to Micah Walter-Range, Director of Research and Analysis for the Space Foundation.

"In terms of a rough count, there are more than 100 'Earth observation' and 'remote sensing' satellites in orbit at present, owned and operated by companies or by government agencies (both civil and military) from more than 30 countries, including developing nations such as Algeria, Nigeria, Venezuela, and Vietnam," Walter-Range said in an email to ABC today.

Not all of the satellites currently orbiting the earth take images, he explained, but many do. Others beam signals back to earth for GPS devices and still others are for communications devices like cell phones.

Countries looking to begin their space programs with just one low-end imaging satellite can have one built and launched for them for under $100 million, Walter-Range said.

The countries that have produced images in the search for the plane have taken photos as they passed over the Indian Ocean between Australia and the Antarctic, a remote stretch of earth that is difficult to search by air or sea.

The photos have allowed analysts on the ground to point search planes and boats toward specific locations based on where objects were seen in images and how far they may have drifted from winds and currents.

Though many nations have produced these images in recent days, search teams have not been able to recover any of the spotted objects to determine whether they are from flight 370. Part of the problem has been a delay from when the satellites spotted the objects and took the pictures to when researchers on the ground could analyze the data and share it with search teams.

"You have a spacecraft that captures the image as it's passing over the water and it has to transmit that image to the ground. It's taking images all the time, so it's definitely going to take time to dot he analysis, waiting for it to transmit all the information, and there may be steps to be taken to clean up the imagery before it may be analyzed," Walter-Range said.

"For something like this where the challenge is that you just don't know where to look, it would take considerably more time," he added.

Companies are currently researching ways to stream live video of satellite images to the ground, so analysts could watch as satellites passed over the suspected debris field and report to search crews in real time, but Walter-Range said that technology is not commercially available yet. It is unknown whether government satellites have such capabilities.