More planes began scouring the Indian Ocean today after Chinese satellite photos showing possible debris were backed up by new French images, giving fresh impetus to the hunt for the missing Malaysian airliner.
Eight aircraft are searching an area spanning 59,000 square kilometers (22,800 square miles) after China revealed a March 18 satellite shot depicting a floating object 22.5 meters long. The images from French authorities show “potential objects in the vicinity,” Malaysia’s transport ministry said in a statement.
The developments rekindled hopes of a breakthrough in the mystery of Malaysian Air Flight 370 after radar and visual scans failed to find objects spotted in earlier images and analysis of a flight simulator installed at the pilot’s home produced no leads. Searchers also want to locate a wooden pallet seen from the air to check if it could have come from the jet’s hold.
“The aircraft are operating at extreme ranges,” Australian Maritime Safety Authority official Mike Barton said, with the closest airfield 2,500 kilometers away. “They’re operating at the limits of their endurance and only having a short period of one-to-two hours in the search area.”
The Chinese satellite photo is from a point 90 degrees east and almost 45 degrees south, versus almost 91 degrees east and 44 degrees south for similar images taken from space on March 16 image, putting the object 120 kilometers southwest of that sighting, according to China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense.
The dimensions appear similar to those of the larger of two objects seen previously, said to be 24 meters long. The Malaysian plane, a Boeing Co. 777-200, measures 63 meters, with a wingspan of 61 meters and a 6.2 meter cabin diameter.
The French satellite images were received this morning and have been sent to the Australian center coordinating the search in the southern Indian Ocean, the Malaysian statement said.
The wooden pallet spotted yesterday by an aircraft taking part in the search was among a number of small objects spread over 5 kilometers and could be of the kind used in planes, the AMSA’s Barton told reporters, adding that there appeared to be evidence of multi-colored strapping belts around it.
“The use of wooden pallets is quite common in the industry,” Barton said. “They’re usually packed into another container which is loaded in the belly of the aircraft.”
A New Zealand P3 Orion surveillance plane dispatched to the scene yesterday found only clumps of seaweed.
“The more aircraft we have, the more ships we have, the more confident we are of recovering whatever material is down there,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said today in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, according to a transcript. “Obviously before we can be too specific about what it might be, we do actually need to recover some of this material.”
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation joined the probe as Malaysian authorities seek to retrieve deleted data on the home-computer flight simulator belonging to the jet’s captain.
The FBI has received “digital media” from Malaysian authorities, including information from the simulator’s hard drive, and technicians were examining the data in Virginia, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the case who asked not to be named because the probe is ongoing.
Investigators are trying to learn more about what the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, did on the simulator, and part of that effort involves trying to examine files that may have been deleted from the drive, the official said.
FBI agent Michael Kortan, a spokesman for the bureau, declined to comment. The simulator hasn’t produced any clear lead yet for investigators, Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said yesterday.
Neither have investigators found any link between the aircraft’s cargo, which included lithium batteries, and its disappearance, Hishammuddin said.
“My biggest concern is that if we are not able to identify the debris, having to go back to the two corridors is a huge and massive area,” he said. “This is unprecedented.”
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has said that the jet emitted pulse-like signals to a satellite about seven hours after last making voice contact, shifting the focus of the search to two arcs, one extending north to Kazakhstan and the other into the southern Indian Ocean.
In the northern zone, there have been no indications of the missing airplane on radar in China, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Laos, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, Hishammuddin said.
Already facing strong currents and rough seas, the Indian Ocean search could be disrupted by Tropical Cyclone Gillian, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, head of Malaysia’s civil aviation authority, told reporters near Kuala Lumpur airport. The cyclone is currently further north, closer to Christmas Island.
Australia said two merchant vessels assisted in the hunt yesterday, while China deployed at least seven ships, according to the Xinhua News Agency, a flotilla that reflects the urgency it attaches to finding Flight 370, whose complement of 239 passengers and crew included more than 150 Chinese.
A total of eight planes took part today, including four civil aircraft and a U.S. Navy P8 Poseidon, while the HMAS Success from the Royal Australian Navy also joined the search, AMSA said. Britain is sending HMS Echo, a specialist ship with underwater listening gear and equipment, to survey the seabed.
The U.S., which is also searching the southern Indian Ocean, was asked by Malaysia to provide underwater search technology, the Defense Department said in a statement.
A U.S. P3-C Orion plane is operating out of Malaysia and is scanning south of the country in the vicinity of the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean, Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an e-mail. The plane had previously been searching for debris in the Bay of Bengal.
An analysis of satellite pings shows that the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. 777 may have flown steadily across the ocean after diverting from its scheduled route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. That assessment gave the clearest idea yet on how investigators pinpointed a search zone.
Engineers at Inmarsat Plc, whose satellite picked up the pings, plotted seven positions for the jet on March 8, Chris McLaughlin, a company spokesman, said in an interview. The plane flew steadily away from the satellite over the equator while pinging, McLaughlin said.
The data helped investigators conclude that the most logical path was progressively either north or south. U.S. investigators have focused the search to the south, where Australia is leading the scouring of the ocean.
“I hope that we’ll find the time soon when we’re able to conclusively say once and for all that we are close to finding where this plane may now be located and that there can be some kind of closure for families,” Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss told reporters today. “We will continue as long as there’s hope.”
With assistance from Jason Scott in Canberra, Michael Sin and David Fickling in Sydney, Barry Porter and Manirajan Ramasamy in Kuala Lumpur, Shamim Adam in Singapore, Gopal Ratnam, John Hughes, Del Quentin Wilber and Michelle Jamrisko in Washington and Aipeng Soo in Beijing.
To contact the reporters on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at [email protected]; Angus Whitley in Sydney at [email protected]; Michael Heath in Sydney at [email protected] To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anand Krishnamoorthy at [email protected]; Bernard Kohn at [email protected] Tony Jordan, Christopher Jasper.