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Satellite images from France aid in search for missing Malaysian airliner

Source: AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) The search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 resumed Friday in the southern Indian Ocean with long-range reconnaissance aircraft looking for possible debris from the jetliner in one of the most remote locations on Earth. Aircraft from Australia, New Zealand and the United States have staggered departures to an area roughly 1,500 miles southwest of Perth, where two objects were captured on satellite and described as possible pieces of the commercial jetliner, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
Credit: AMSA

Debris sightings renew hope in jet search


By Simon Denyer and Jia Lynn Yang
(c) 2014, The Washington Post.


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — China released a new image of a "suspected floating object" in the Indian Ocean on Saturday as Australians spotted debris in the search area, bringing fresh hope to the massive hunt for a missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner.

China has sent ships to investigate the object spotted by its satellite, according to the Malaysian government. But Australia said its planes had passed over the same area Saturday and did not find anything.

The Chinese government said one of its satellites spotted the object Tuesday about 75 miles southwest of another debris sighting last week.

A grainy image of the latest find was tweeted Saturday by Chinese state television. It is dated two days after two earlier images released by Australia.

The search for the missing airliner has entered a third week, with the main hope for a breakthrough hinging on planes and ships being able to locate floating objects spotted by satellites in a desolate stretch of ocean almost as close to Antarctica as to Australia.

"It's still too early to be definite, but obviously we have now had a number of very credible leads, and there is increasing hope — no more than hope, no more than hope — that we might be on the road to discovering what happened to this ill-fated aircraft," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Sunday.

Abbott said observers had been able to see "a number of small objects fairly close together," including a wooden pallet.

On Saturday, Malaysia's Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein interrupted a news conference to say he had just received "breaking news" from the Chinese ambassador: A new satellite image had been received showing a floating object in the Indian Ocean.

"They will be sending ships to verify," he said. The object was74 feet by 43 feet, the Malaysian government said.

A Boeing 777-200 is 209 feet long, with a wingspan of 199 feet and a tail height of 60 feet. Its body is 20 feet in diameter.

Experts said an object that large, if it came from the plane, could only be part of a wing. But even if empty fuel tanks inside the wing were filled with air, some doubted a fragment could stay afloat for 10 days after the Malaysia Airlines plane vanished March 8, especially in rough seas.

The search for debris from the plane has been complicated by strong and unpredictable currents in that part of the Indian Ocean. The two objects previously spotted by satellite March 16, the focus of the current Australian-led search, could have drifted more than 100 miles, experts said.

Charitha Pattiaratchi, a professor of coastal oceanography at the University of Western Australia in Crawley, said currents in the area are generally moving in a northeasterly direction.

He said the new debris spotted by the Chinese satellite could easily have come from the same crash site as the previous objects but could be trailing behind. "The bigger it is, the harder it is to move," he said. "It is totally consistent with what we know."

For the past three days, surveillance planes have been passing back and forth over the Indian Ocean in an effort to locate debris.

The search has become a race against time — before the objects drift too far, break up or sink in heavy ocean swells — and because bad weather was expected to set in Sunday and last through this week.

On Saturday, a civilian plane reported seeing a "number of small objects" floating in the water within a radius of three miles, including a wooden pallet, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said in a statement.

When a New Zealand air force P-3 Orion surveillance plane "with specialist electro-optic observation equipment" went to the area, it found only clumps of seaweed.

A merchant ship has been asked to return to the area for a closer look, AMSA said. The agency, which is coordinating the search in the southern Indian Ocean, said it would evaluate the information supplied by China and take it into account in Sunday's search plans.

Three Australian P-3 Orion planes and one from New Zealand were being joined Saturday by two long-range commercial jets with trained volunteers on board peering out of windows. Two merchant ships were joined by an Australian naval vessel, while China said two of its air force transport planes arrived in the Australian west coast city of Perth from Malaysia on Saturday to assist.

Saturday's search centered on an area of roughly 14,000 square miles located about 1,550 miles southwest of Perth. It partly overlapped with a smaller area searched on Friday and with a larger patch of ocean searched Thursday, according to maps and data supplied by AMSA.

Warren Truss, Australia's deputy prime minister, said a complete search could take a long time and warned that the objects could have sunk already.

"Even though this is not a definite lead, it is probably more solid than any other lead around the world, and that is why so much effort and interest is being put into this search," he told reporters at the air force base in Perth that is being used as a staging area for the search planes.

"It is a very remote area, but we intend to continue the search until we're absolutely satisfied that further searching would be futile — and that day is not in sight," Truss said.

The area takes four hours' flying time to reach, meaning the Orions have only enough fuel for two hours of searching before having to return home. The commercial jets can search the area for five hours. AMSA said radar sweeps of the area have not turned up anything, meaning the effort largely must rely mostly on spotters scanning vast expanses of ocean by eye.

"While these aircraft are equipped with very advanced technology, much of this search is actually visual," Truss said.

While AMSA and pilots reported good visibility of around six miles Friday and Saturday, that may not last.

Meteorologists say worse weather is expected to set in after Sunday, with a series of fronts passing through the area throughout the week.

That raises the prospect of rain, huge swells and wind-driven whitecaps in a remote and inhospitable part of the Indian Ocean near latitude 40 degrees south that is known as the Roaring Forties because of its frequent fierce westerly winds.

A Category One cyclone struck Australia's Christmas Island on Saturday, 1,600 miles northwest of Perth, and could bring further bad weather to the search area.

Time pressure is heightened by the fact that the location beacon built into the plane's flight recorder, or "black box," is likely to keep transmitting for only another two weeks before its batteries run out.

If debris from the airliner is found, complex and uncertain mathematical modeling will have to be employed to track back and find out where the plane might have come down, and naval vessels equipped with sonar technology will have to sweep the area, listening for beeps from the black box.

Then, it will be a case of searching the deep ocean floor, roughly two miles beneath the surface, with undersea drones to look for the main wreckage.

When an Air France plane crashed into the Atlantic in 2009, the first debris and bodies were pulled from the sea after five days, but it took more than two years to find the main wreckage on the ocean floor. That was partly because mathematical models of ocean currents initially sent investigators to the wrong place.

The two objects identified by Australia this week were roughly 80 feet and 15 feet long.

Peter Marosszeky, an aviation expert at the University of New South Wales, said the larger object could have been a piece of wing kept afloat for a while by air in empty fuel tanks or a fin — or simply a piece of unrelated debris of the sort that litters the oceans of the world. "At the moment, it's all conjecture," he said.

Marosszeky said the larger object could easily have been a shipping container, noting that a couple of hundred thousand of them litter oceans around the world.

But it could also be a piece of wing, kept afloat for a while by air in empty fuel tanks, or a fin — or simply a piece of unrelated debris, of the sort that litters the oceans of the world. "At the moment, it's all conjecture," he said.

Alan Kin-Tak Lau, an expert in aircraft maintenance and accidents at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said he did not believe the large objects came from a plane, because large metal aircraft parts would be expected to sink fairly quickly.

"The only material you would expect to see is luggage and baggage and seats," he said. "The metal parts are too heavy, and for the Boeing 777, the whole aircraft is made of aluminum."

Meanwhile, the search for the Malaysia Airlines plane is continuing in other parts of the world, both over land across vast expanses of central and southeast Asia and over other parts of the Indian Ocean where the plane's final satellite transmissions suggested it might have been at 8:11 a.m. on March 8.

Hishammuddin said China, India, Pakistan, Burma, Laos, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan had informed Malaysia that "preliminary analysis" had not revealed any sightings of the plane in the northern search area, primarily on land.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 vanished from civilian radar at 1:21 a.m. on March 8, not long after setting off from Kuala Lumpur on its way to Beijing. It then did a U-turn and headed west back across the Malaysian peninsula before vanishing from Malaysian military radar at 2:11 a.m. in the northern end of the Strait of Malacca.

The Malaysians running the investigations say they believe the flight must have been deliberately flown off course, either by one of its pilots or by hijackers, but have not ruled catastrophic mechanic failure.

There was no indication that the investigation into what may have caused the flight to disappear had yielded new information.

A transcript of the cockpit's last minutes of conversation with air traffic controllers "does not indicate anything abnormal," Hishammuddin, the defense minister, said.

He did not comment on a report in the Sydney Morning Herald that nothing suspicious had been found on data taken from a flight simulator removed from the home of the airliner's pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah.

William Wan and Gu Jinglu in Beijing contributed to this report.

Ralph Ellis and Ben Brumfield

CNN

(CNN) -- Now a third set of satellite images points to possible debris in the southern Indian Ocean, where an international team led by Australia is scouring the waters for remnants of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

French authorities passed on images showing "potential objects in the vicinity of the southern corridor" of the search area for the plane, Malaysia's acting transportation minister said Sunday.

"Malaysia immediately relayed these images to the Australian rescue coordination center," Hishammuddin Hussein said.

Satellite images previously issued by Australian and Chinese authorities have also pointed to possible large floating objects, stoking hopes searchers may find debris.

The added images from France were coupled with the addition of new planes to the search.

On Sunday, eight airplanes flew over the southern Indian Ocean searching for the missing plane, said Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokeswoman Andrea Hayward-Maher.

That's two planes more than Saturday, and the most aircraft involved in the search led by Australia so far, she said.

Two more planes that have arrived in Australia from China will join the search on Monday. Two Japanese planes in Australia are also preparing to participate, Hishammuddin said.

Sunday's search was a visual search, AMSA rescue spokesman Mike Barton told reporters. Eyes took precedence over radar.

The planes planned to base their movements on Chinese satellite images of debris and drift modeling, the AMSA said.

On Saturday, searchers found a wooden pallet as well as strapping belts, AMSA's John Young said. The use of wooden pallets is common in the airline industry.

"It's a possible lead ... but pallets are used in the shipping industry as well." he said Sunday. Authorities have said random debris is often found in the ocean.

The Sunday search has been split into two areas that cover 59,000 square kilometers (23,000 square miles) about 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth.

Only one ship, the HMAS Success, an Australian naval vessel, will be involved in the Sunday search, Barton said. A Norwegian merchant ship previously involved was released in anticipation of rough weather.

The flying distance to and from the search area presents a big challenge for search aircraft. "They're operating at the limits of their endurance," Barton said. The distance is forcing searchers to spread the search out over multiple days.

Hope, only hope

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott voiced hope.

"We have now had a number of very credible leads, and there is increasing hope -- no more than hope, no more than hope -- that we might be on the road to discovering what did happen to this ill-fated aircraft," Abbott said at a press conference.

In one of the great aviation mysteries in history, the airliner carrying 239 people disappeared March 8 after it took off from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on a flight to Beijing. An exhaustive search covering 2.97 million square miles -- nearly the size of the continental United States -- has yielded some clues, but no evidence of where the Boeing 777 is or what happened to it.

NASA satellites to be employed

A U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon, one of the military's most sophisticated reconnaissance planes, on Sunday refocused on an area highlighted in Chinese satellite images of a large object floating in the southern Indian Ocean. The object the Chinese satellite photographed is estimated to be 22.5 meters long and 13 meters wide (74 feet by 43 feet), officials said.

The plane was forced to fly at an altitude of just 300 feet because of low cloud ceilings and poor visibility.

Conditions were terrible, said Lt. Cmdr. Adam Schantz, the officer in charge of P-8 operations in Perth.

As a result of the satellite sighting, plans are under way to acquire more imagery within the next few days, NASA said Saturday.

The space agency said it will check archives of satellite data and use space-based assets such as the Earth-Observing-1 satellite and the ISERV camera on the International Space Station to scour for possible crash sites. The resolution of these images could be used to identify objects of about 98 feet (30 meters) or larger.

The floating object reported in the Chinese satellite images was about 77 miles from where earlier satellite images issued by Australia spotted floating debris.

During Saturday's search, a civil aircraft reported sighting with the naked eye some small objects floating, including the wooden pallet, AMSA said. These objects were within a radius of 5 kilometers (3 miles).

Debris is a common sight in that part of the ocean and includes containers that fall off ships.

Countries from central Asia to Australia are also engaged in the search along an arc drawn by authorities based on satellite pings received from the plane hours after it vanished. One arc tracks the southern Indian Ocean zone that's the focus of current attention.

The other arc tracks over parts of Cambodia, Laos, China and into Kazakhstan.

CNN's Mitra Mobasherat reported from Kuala Lumpur. Faith Karimi in Atlanta and CNN's Elizabeth Joseph contributed to this report.

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