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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And we're going to turn now to NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel to talk further about how something like this could've happened. And Geoff we just heard Corey reporting there about the dueling allegations between Russia and Ukraine. Any possibility about mechanical failures, though?

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Well, I think from an accident investigation perspective it's too early to rule anything out. So there is a possibility of mechanical failure, of course. But the Boeing Triple Seven aircraft has an excellent safety record up to this point. So as Corey said, the plane being shot down is the most likely option.

CORNISH: Help us understand how common is it for commercial airlines to fly over Eastern Ukraine, especially given the recent activity there?

BRUMFIEL: Well, commercial airlines will fly whatever is the most efficient route that saves them the most time and fuel. And so routes are over Eastern Ukraine. Now, there have been some warnings issued about specifically Crimea - interestingly enough - because both the Ukraine and Russia claimed Crimean airspace. And so there were worries about whether or not air traffic control communications could become confused. But neither the International Civil Aviation Organization nor the FAA has issued any warning about this particular region.

CORNISH: It seems like a high-risk decision, though.

BRUMFIEL: In retrospect, it certainly does. And airliners have changed their routes in the past over conflict zones, like Syria. In this particular case, it's important to remember that commercial airliners do have some protection. For example, they carry transponders - these are basically little radio beacons that identify the flight, it's altitude, it's heading and all of this information. They also register their routes with local civil aviation authorities. And they fly at altitudes that are far higher than can usually be reached by say a shoulder fired missile - so a missile that your typical rebel might have to hand.

CORNISH: Now if it's determined that the jet was indeed shot down, can you describe how that might have happened?

BRUMFIEL: Yes, so - I mean, first thing to say is at this stage it seems likely it would have been an accident because it's hard to conceive how any side on this conflict would want to shoot down a Malaysian airliner. Now that being said, the transponders I talk about - just now - they communicate to civil aviation authorities and civil radar. Military organizations, armies, they have their own radars that also look for aircraft. And they don't always see the transponders. And then finally, the types of sophisticated anti-aircraft systems that could actually hit a plane like this - the booke (ph) that Corey just mentioned - they also have their own standalone radars that travel with the missiles. Those radars have some friend or foe identification but they can't see the little beacons on commercial planes. So it's possible that, you know, a standalone radar saw this aircraft, whoever was in charge made the decision to fire and as a result the plane was intercepted and shot down. And this actually happened in 2001 in Crimea. The Ukrainian Army accidentally shot down a Russian commercial airliner.

CORNISH: So at this point would there be a civil investigation?

BRUMFIEL: A civil investigation will be messy. Officially, according to international law, the Ukrainians would have to lead it. But obviously there's a lot of politics and conflict in the region right now. But I do think that the international community is going to call for some sort of explanation of what's happened in this incident.

CORNISH: That's NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

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