Aircraft and ships from several nations including the United States are converging on an area in the southern Indian Ocean where Australian officials say satellites spotted two objects that may be debris from the Malaysia Airlines jetliner that vanished almost two weeks ago with 239 people aboard. It could be the first significant breakthrough in the mystery of Flight MH370.
Half a dozen Malaysian ships, a U.S. Navy Poseidon patrol aircraft and an Australian warship were among the battalion dispatched to investigate the objects, which are said to be partially submerged and “bobbing up and down” in the water.
Malaysian Transportation Minister Hishammuddin bin Hussein said: “We now have a credible lead.”
At a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, he said the Australian discovery needs to be verified, but “that gives us hope.” Relatives of passengers and the crew have been briefed on the existence of the unidentified objects.
The scramble to an area of deep ocean near Australia followed prime minister Tony Abbott’s briefing to the House of Representatives in Canberra on Thursday: “The Australian maritime safety authority has received information based on satellite imagery of objects possibly related to the search,” he said. “Following specialist analysis of this satellite imagery, two possible objects related to the search have been identified.”
Abbott was quick to add a note of caution. “I should tell the House—and we must keep this in mind—the task of locating these objects will be extremely difficult and it may turn out that they are not related to the search for flight MH370.
Nevertheless, I did want to update the House on this potentially important development.”
A Royal Australian Air Force Orion maritime surveillance aircraft was diverted to the area where the debris, one piece of which was described as measuring almost 79 feet, could not immediately be identified as cloud and rain meant visibility was low.
That Abbott made the announcement himself—and in Parliament—underscores how significant the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 has become. Since the Boeing 777-200 vanished in the early hours of March 8 with 227 passengers and 12 crew members aboard, the case has anguished relatives, baffled authorities, flummoxed experts and captivated the world. Twenty-six nations have joined the search, which has involved 60 ships and 50 aircraft.
Shortly after Abbott’s briefing, Australian officials gave further details at a press conference. John Young, general manager of the Australia Maritime Safety Authority, said that besides the 79-foot object, satellite images showed one other object in the Indian Ocean.
“The objects are relatively indistinct. The indication to me is of objects that are of a reasonable size and probably awash with water and bobbing up and down over the surface," he said. “This is a lead; it is probably the best lead we have right now. But we need to get there, find them, see them, assess them, to know whether it’s really meaningful or not.”
Australian authorities, who had been leading the “southern vector” portion of the search for the missing jet, have now redirected search efforts to the vast expanse of deep water off the coast of Perth. There’s no guarantee that the objects seen by satellite are from Flight MH370, although some analysts were suggesting they could be part of the plane’s fuselage, and others were noting that a 777’s wings measure about 88 feet—roughly the size of the bigger object.
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Leaving aside the logistical challenges, identifying the objects as part of the missing plane could take a while. An Australian ship equipped for recovering objects will take days to reach the area. A merchant ship reportedly is expected to arrive about 6 p.m. local time, which may be too late for a proper search, although it is not clear what a civilian ship could accomplish in any case.
Questions already are being raised about how much the Australians knew, and when they knew it. Those questions may stem from reports that the satellite images are from March 16, but that time stamp would not necessarily mean officials had enough information to make an assessment.
The suspicion is hardly surprising, however, given the confusion that has reigned since the plane’s disappearance, and the frustration and fury many relatives of the passengers have directed at Malaysian officials. Those officials have conducted press conferences that often have featured conflicting information from different speakers, who have been attacked by many—including Malaysian opposition politicians—as incompetent. As recently as Wednesday, Malaysia was skewered after security officials forcibly removed from a press briefing two Chinese women who tried to voice their criticisms. The women were sequestered and not allowed to speak with reporters. The majority of the passengers on Flight MH370, more than 150, are Chinese. Thirty-eight are said to be Malaysians.