Satellites are an integral part of life these days, from meteorologists tracking storm systems to spying on your neighbors in Google Earth. When Malaysia Airlines 370 went missing a few weeks ago, investigators turned to satellite imagery to aid search and rescue teams spot any possible wreckage in the ocean. While crews are using the blurry images as possible leads to search for debris, people on social media want to know why we can't see the objects more clearly from space.
After several days of searching by both Australian and American authorities, the debris seen on satellite was never found and crews found no other signs of the missing aircraft. A few days later, the Chinese government released a satellite image of another large object floating in the Indian Ocean that search crews were also unable to find.
Every time a government source releases a satellite image of suspect flotsam and jetsam, people are quick to point out that the images are blurry, making it hard to identify exactly what's in the picture. One of the most common questions on social media is "Google Earth can see my car, so why can't we clearly see debris in the ocean?"
It's because Google, for the most part, doesn't use satellites for Google Earth.
Companies like Google and Microsoft (for Bing Maps) don't really use satellites to take most of the pictures for their "satellite view" imagery. They use ultra-high-resolution cameras in airplanes to take close-up pictures we're all familiar with. They do incorporate some satellite imagery into their products (especially for zoomed-out views and those over lesser-populated areas), but most of the areas that allow you to zoom in with impressive clarity are really aerial photographs from airplanes.
For instance, the above "satellite" view of the National Weather Service office in Greenville, SC on Bing was taken from an airplane. Likewise, the image at the top of this post of cars in a parking lot on Google Maps was taken from an airplane over Charlotte, NC.
That being said, there are satellites that can take pictures of objects on the ground with an impressive amount of clarity. The United States government demonstrated that it has the ability to clearly see objects on the ground from space when it released images of Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011. None of these satellites are available to the public, of course, but they do exist.
Two of the highest resolution satellite images free for public consumption are taken by two weather satellites called Aqua and Terra, but the highest resolution picture they take (250 meters per pixel) is still extremely zoomed-out and doesn't let you pick out roads or buildings, let alone anything smaller.
After the plane went missing, folks around the world swarmed to Google Earth in hopes of helping authorities locate the missing Malaysian flight. No, really. It turns out that enough people thought the "satellite" views from Google were live that Google actually had to say that their imagery isn't taken in real time.
There is a way around this for people who want to help, though. DigitalGlobe runs a service called "tomnod" that uploads recent satellite imagery and allows people to scour the land and seas to find anything noteworthy in the search for the missing jet.
Unless governments start (or already are) using ultra-high-resolution satellites to search for MH370, the fuzzy photos released by China and Australia are pretty much as good as they're going to get.
[Images via Google / Australian Government / Bing]