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Scientists offer new perspective on Russian jet downing

Physicists from Belgium have used mathematics to show that neither Russia's nor Turkey's version of the downing of a military jet adds up. Turkey's downing of the Russian jet has strained relations between the countries.

Astrophysicists Tom van Doorsslaere and Giovanni Lapenta from the University of Leuven in Belgium have questioned the statements made by Russia and Turkey regarding the shooting down of a Russian warplane by a Turkish fighter jet on November 24. They employed simple calculations taking into account flight speed, altitude and direction to show that neither official account added up.

According to Turkey,

the aircraft was fired at because it traveled through Turkish airspace

for about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) for about 17 seconds after being warned to change its direction 10 times over a period of five minutes.

In a blog on the University of Leuven's website, van Doorsslaere and Lapenta claim that Turkey's version cannot be right. Based on where the wreckage landed, their calculations show that it had been traveling at 980 kilometers per hour (610 mph) before it got hit. At that speed, they say, the plane would have covered the distance of 2 kilometers in seven seconds, not the 17 seconds claimed by Turkish reports.

In regard to the Turkish air force's alleged 10 warnings for the Russian jet, the scientists point out that in five minutes a plane traveling at 980 kph would cross a distance of about 80 kilometers. From these facts, they conclude: "How could the Turkish air force predict that the Russian jets were about to enter Turkish airspace? Military jets are very agile, and in theory the Russian jets could have turned at the last moment to avoid Turkish airspace. The warnings issued to the Russian pilots were mere speculation at the moment they were made."

Russian version questioned

Russia's map shows that the jet made a 90-degree turn away from Turkey after it was hit. Kremlin officials insist that the plane did not enter Turkish airspace at any point and that it crashed on Syrian territory, close to the border.

Map showing the approximate landing site of the downed jet

The plane crashed near the border between Turkey and Syria

According to the scientists, however, a 90-degree turn at such a high speed could only happen if the aircraft had been hit by something many times heavier or faster than itself.

"A missile is much lighter than a plane," van Doorsslaere told DW. "A 90-degree turn would be a more likely in a scenario where something like a train hits something like a car."

Not taking sides

The idea to analyze the Russian jet's flight path started out as a casual lunchtime discussion between van Doorsslaere and Lapenta.

"We were both a bit confused by the numbers spread around by Russia and Turkey," van Doorsslaere said. "We did some calculations in our heads while walking back to the office, and once we were there we did them properly."

Van Doorsslaere added that he and his colleague were not interested in proving that either country's version was more correct than the other. He said the two were simply trying to show that we should be careful with the facts and figures coming from both sides.

Since their blog article was published, they have received additional insights and information on the topic, but they are not planning to engage in further analysis of the situation. However, van Doorsslaere would not mind seeing others elaborate on their calculations.

"It would be a good thing if someone created an even more accurate model," he said.

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