In Nevada, the search for missing aviator Steve Fossett goes on - and now thousands of amateurs are joining in from their desks. They're using the Internet to look at satellite photos of the part of Nevada where Fossett disappeared. They're looking for traces of his missing airplane.

NPR's Dan Charles has more.

DAN CHARLES: Steve Fossett had only been missing for a day or two when his friend, billionaire Richard Branson, told reporters he'd been talking with Google, hoping that the company's storehouse of satellite images might help locate the missing aviator.

When people who work with satellite images all the time heard this, some of them thought at first it didn't make any sense. Adena Schutzberg, for instance. She's executive editor of Directions magazine, which covers the map-making industry.

Ms. ADENA SCHUTZBERG (Executive Editor, Directions Magazine): Well, I had two reactions. One was, well, Google can't really help him because Google doesn't actually create the imagery that's in its product.

CHARLES: Google just buys those images from companies - or governments - that do operate satellites. Also, the gorgeous pictures of our planet that are available through Google Earth were taken months or years ago. They won't show you an airplane that went missing just last week.

Ms. SCHUTZBERG: But my second thought was, well, gee, that's a really good idea because if he gets in touch with Google, Google can then get in touch with the people who provide the data, and then we're up and running.

CHARLES: That's exactly what happened. Google put in an urgent request to two companies - GeoEye and DigitalGlobe. Both operate satellites that come within a camera shot of any spot on the globe every few days. Last week those satellites collected images of the section of Nevada where searchers hope to find Steve Fossett.

Google passed those images along to Amazon.com because Amazon has a way to let thousands of people share the job of searching for Steve Fossett. Amazon's tool divides the whole search area - 6,000 square miles into small squares about 300 feet across. It assigns each of those small squares to anyone who signs up to help.

Mr. PETER COHEN (Amazon.com): And they click yes, there's something interesting in this image, or no, there's nothing interesting in this image.

CHARLES: Peter Cohen is director of this effort at Amazon.

Mr. COHEN: We've had tens of thousands of people in the last three days sign up and participate in this, which is, I think, a testament to the power of what the Internet can do.

CHARLES: Of course searchers in airplanes already have flown across this whole section of Nevada, inspecting it as closely as they possibly can. But Adena Schutzberg from Directions magazine says the online search does add something. The pictures are quite sharp. Anything bigger than two or three feet will show up.

Ms. SCHUTZBERG: And the fact that you can distribute the work of exploring these images across the globe literally means that you've got these really fresh eyes. That's a real big advantage.

CHARLES: The international community of online searchers has marked several thousand small images as interesting and worth closer attention. Google forwarded those images to search teams in Nevada. So far, though, none of the tips has led to Steve Fossett.

If you're wondering how much this costs, one of the satellite companies, GeoEye, typically charges $7 per square kilometer for its images; a picture of 6,000 square miles would run about $100,000. The most valuable part of this operation though is the time that thousands of people donated, staring at images of a distant, desolate landscape, one they probably never will see up close.

Dan Charles, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: You can find a link to the satellite images used in the search at npr.org.

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