Investigation of satellite data

Obtaining as many satellite images as possible which were as sharp as possible was vital to several parts of the investigation.  

This is a summary of the speaking notes of the prosecutor. The full presentation can be watched in the video.

MH17: Investigation on satallite data

Satellites are launched into orbit by both private enterprises and states. Satellites record data in different ways. Very often they provide images, but it is also possible for a satellite to detect heat, for example. Therefore the term ‘satellite image' refers to more than just aerial photographs.

Satellites do not provide an unlimited view of the surface of the earth at any given moment in time. Firstly because there is no constant registration of earth’s surface by satellites. Many satellites use the same orbit to travel around earth, because it gives the biggest range. The same locations are consequently recorded at more or less the same time by many different satellites. As a consequence, no material will be available of other locations at that same time, or of the same location at different times. Secondly, a satellite only records images for 10% to 30% of the time in order to save energy. And finally, a satellite’s recording view can be blocked by clouds. 

The investigation team made exceptional efforts to obtain clear satellite images and other satellite data. In doing so, we sought the cooperation of private enterprises, a non-governmental organization and of several states.  

Geoserve

Geoserve is a private enterprise, that sells images from dozens of satellites. Geoserve therefore  procures images from other commercial undertakings on behalf of the buyer. The investigation team asked Geoserve whether it was possible to buy satellite images of relevant locations such as: the crash site, the possible launch locations and the routes taken by the Buk-TELAR. We were provided with images from 16, 20 and 21 July 2014. As to 17 July 2014, according to Geoserve, there were no images of the launch site. The images of the launch site dated 18 and 19 July 2014 could not be used due to cloud cover.

Google Earth

On 22 June 2016, Google Earth published a satellite photograph. Various sources reported that it was a satellite image from 17 July 2014 of Makiivka at the moment when the Buk transport was passing through. The same satellite photograph had also been procured by the investigation team via Geoserve. 

ESA

The investigation team subsequently called in the assistance of the European Space Agency (ESA). One of ESA’s tasks is to collect and analyse images from civilian satellites. The information concerned is gathered by satellites that record optical images and satellites that record thermal images. Amongst other things, ESA was asked to examine, on the basis of satellite imagery, the potential launch locations and the route of the convoy in which the Buk-TELAR was travelling both in eastern Ukraine (July 2014) and in the Russian Federation (June 2014).  

China, the United States and the Russian Federation

Finally, the investigation team endeavoured to obtain relevant satellite images from other countries, such as the United States, Russia and China. The request to China did not yield results, since according to China the satellite in question was not functioning at the time.
We obtained no images from the United States, but we did receive certain information. The US has specific, military instruments for the detection of missile launches. The US’ possession of early warning systems of this kind is known, but the way they work is classified. The day after MH17 was shot down, the then US president declared: ‘Evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile that was launched from an area that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists inside of Ukraine.’ For state security reasons the specific method as to how the US made such a detection could not be divulged. However, a representative of the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence did issue a written statement, which observed among other things that:

"At the time MH17 dropped out of contact, the US Intelligence Community detected [Public Prosecution Service's underlining] an SA-11 surface to air missile (SAM) launch from approximately six kilometers south of the town of Snizhne in Eastern Ukraine."

The Dutch National Public Prosecutor for Counterterrorism, Intelligence and Security Services was given the opportunity to check the accuracy of this statement against the underlying, secret sources. Dutch statute makes provision for an assessment under criminal law of information from the Dutch intelligence services that is classified as secret. By way of exception, the US authorities granted our colleague this opportunity. In the United States the National Public Prosecutor was given an intelligence briefing by several American officials and he was also granted access to various classified and unclassified documents, though not to all underlying research- and metadata. According to the National Public Prosecutor, the secret sources he consulted support the written statement issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. 

On request the Russian Federation supplied digital low resolution copies of the satellite imagery shown in its press conference of 21 July 2014. Requests for the actual image files and for all other relevant satellite imagery, among which images of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces in the period 14 -18 July 2014, did not yield results. In March 2020 the Russian authorities replied that the satellite imagery of the location in Zaroshenskoe had not been retained.  

Investigation of radar and satellite images – conclusion

Considerable efforts were made during the investigation to obtain all relevant radar and satellite images. The Public Prosecution Service believes that all reasonable efforts were made in this regard.