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New satellite images 'most credible' lead yet on missing Malaysia Airlines plane

Location of Unknown Objects Reported by Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency (MRSA) Referred to in the Minister's press conference March 26, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Credit: MRSA

New satellite images 'most credible' lead yet on missing Malaysia Airlines plane
By Jia Lynn Yang and and William Wan
William Wan
(c) 2014, The Washington Post.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — New satellite images taken in recent days show more than 100 objects — some as long as 75 feet — that may have come from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Wednesday.

The images, which Hishammuddin called the "most credible" lead so far in the search for the vanished Boeing 777 airliner, revealed items in the water nearly 1,600 miles from Perth, Australia. The images, taken on Sunday, were provided by France's Airbus Defence and Space company.

France gave Malaysian authorities the new information Tuesday, and an analysis by Malaysia's remote sensing agency identified 122 objects. The Malaysian government said it has since shared the information with the Australian authorities leading the search in the southern Indian Ocean.

"We cannot tell whether the potential objects are from MH370," Hishammuddin said. "Nevertheless, this is another new lead that will help direct the search operation."

The images mark the fourth set of data from satellites showing objects that may have come from the plane drifting in the remote waters of the southern Indian Ocean.

A new surge of planes and ships arrived to assist in the growing hunt for the missing aircraft, which local government officials say went down in the southern Indian Ocean with 239 people on board on March 8, far off its planned flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Low-flying planes spotted potential debris as recently as two days ago, but the search had to be put on hold Tuesday because of bad weather.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Wednesday that searchers have been able to see a "considerable" number of objects. "Bad weather and inaccessibility has so far prevented any of it being recovered, but we are confident that some will be," he said.

Aircraft and ships from six countries — Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Japan, China and South Korea — tried to cover a nearly 50,000-square-mile area on Wednesday. The hurdles remain daunting. The area is a four-hour flight from Perth, the base of the Australian-led search. Because of fuel constraints, planes have only two to four hours to look before having to turn back.

Seven planes were flying in the area Wednesday, with four more on the way, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. After a number of days when only the Royal Australian Navy's HMAS Success was available to follow up on any sightings in the sprawling area, four Chinese ships have now arrived to join the hunt.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced Monday night that a new analysis of satellite data showed that the plane's voyage ended somewhere in the remote reaches of the Indian Ocean, dashing hopes that passengers and crew members survived. But physical confirmation — actual debris from the plane — has been elusive.

Over the last week, there have been various satellite images showing large blurry items. Observers on low-flying planes have seen objects both large and small bobbing in the water. But these leads have been like mirages: spotted, only to disappear again.

The sheer challenge of this stage in the search was apparent on Wednesday. Observers saw three objects in the area late in the day: two items that were likely rope, plus a blue object. When the planes flew overhead again to take a look, they could not relocate the objects.

In addition, the search area Wednesday included the location where satellites picked up signs of 122 objects. Yet aside from the three objects spotted briefly, there were no other sightings of debris.

In China, meanwhile, anger at the Malaysian government continued to swell, with celebrities vowing to boycott the country. Chinese on the Internet also wondered whether passengers from another country, such as the United States, would have been treated better.

An online Sina poll asked Chinese Internet users whether the incident would influence whether they would be likely to travel to Malaysia in the future. Out of more than 58,000 respondents as of Wednesday afternoon, 78 percent said it would, 18 percent said it made no difference, and 4 percent said they were not sure.

In Beijing on Tuesday, days of simmering anger exploded into full-blown outrage as relatives of Chinese passengers on the missing flight marched to the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing to demand answers.

The search area spans 469,407 square nautical miles of water roiled this week by high winds and heavy seas, which present a challenge to spotting any floating debris from the decks of ships or aircraft.

If debris is discovered and identified as coming from the missing plane, experts will set out to determine how far it has drifted since the airliner disappeared and identify a significantly smaller search area.

Ashley Fantz

CNN

(CNN) -- Malaysian officials say that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went down in the Indian Ocean, and the search is on for the wreckage, flight data recorders or any other part of the plane.

On Wednesday, a French defense firm provided new satellite images that show 122 objects floating in the southern Indian Ocean, not far from other satellite sightings that could be related to the plane, said acting Malaysia Transportation Minister Hishammuddin Bin Hussein.

What about the latest spotting?

The objects were scattered over 154 square miles (nearly 400 square kilometers), Hishammuddin said. He wasn't sure whether Australian authorities coordinating the search for the plane had been able to follow up Wednesday on the new satellite images, which came from Airbus Defence and Space.

Did search planes see anything?

Search aircraft saw three objects, but none were obvious plane parts, the Australian Maritime Safety Agency said. A civil aircraft in the search spotted two objects that were probably rope, the agency said, and a New Zealand military plane spotted a blue object. None was found again when aircraft made further passes, the agency said on Twitter.

The last of 12 planes dispatched to the site returned to base in Perth late Wednesday without finding anything definitive, Australian officials said.

There have been a lot of leads, so why could these sightings be important?

The latest images that capture the 122 objects appear to be the most significant discovery yet in the hunt for the missing plane, which vanished on March 8 with 239 people aboard, said CNN aviation analyst Miles O'Brien.

"There's a very good chance this could be the break we've been waiting for," he said.

Aviation safety analyst David Soucie agreed, saying he was particularly intrigued by the size of a larger object.

The items seen on satellite range from about 3 feet (1 meter) to about 75 feet (23 meters), according to Hishammuddin. Some appear bright, indicating they may be solid, he said.

"It has potential to be a wing that's floating," Soucie said. "So I'm really encouraged by it, I really am."

The 122 images were captured Sunday, so why are we just now hearing about them?

The transport minister didn't explain the delay in delivering the news. However, this issue also came up when Australians found the first satellite images showing suspected debris in the southern Indian Ocean. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said that the delay was caused by the size of the search area and the volume of the data that has to be reviewed. A similar explanation is probably behind the latest delay.

How many countries are involved in search efforts?

There are seven countries, including Malaysia, helping the current search, which is divided into two sectors, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Agency. Australia is leading the effort, based out of Perth. Others are China, New Zealand, the United States, South Korea and Japan.

How are the families of those on board?

Family members are anguished as they wait for answers. One-third of the plane's passengers were Chinese, and Malaysian authorities' announcement Monday that families should give up hope that their loved ones were alive angered many Chinese.

"My heart can't handle it. I don't want to hurt my children," Cheng Li Ping told CNN as she waited in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for evidence about what happened to her husband, who was aboard.

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