Aircraft and ships scouring the southern Indian Ocean for wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 were racing to beat bad weather on Thursday and reach an area where new satellite images showed what could be a debris field.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), which is co-ordinating the search for the plane out of Perth on the southwestern coast of Australia, said Wednesday that the last aircraft had left the search zone without spotting any remnants of the missing jetliner, which is believed to have gone down somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean.
Australia's Bureau of Meteorology warned that weather was expected to deteriorate again Thursday with a cold front passing through the search area that would bring rain thunderstorms, low clouds and strong winds.
A French satellite scanning the ocean for signs of the plane found a possible debris field containing 122 objects, a top Malaysian official said early Wednesday, calling it "the most credible lead that we have."
Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the objects were in the same area — about 2,500 kilometres southwest of Perth — where a desperate, multinational hunt has been going on since other satellites detected possible jet debris.
Later, AMSA sent a tweet saying three more objects were seen. The authority said two objects seen from a civilian aircraft appeared to be rope, and that a New Zealand military plane spotted a blue object.
Wednesday's search focused on three regions within the same area that cumulatively covered about 80,000 square kilometres.
Objects not seen on 2nd pass
Clouds obscured the latest satellite images, but dozens of objects could be seen in the gaps, ranging in length from one metre to 23 metres. Hishammuddin said some of them "appeared to be bright, possibly indicating solid materials."
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The images were taken Sunday and relayed by French-based Airbus Defence and Space, a division of Europe's Airbus Group; its businesses include the operation of satellites and satellite communications.
None of the objects that were spotted by Australian and New Zealand aircraft were seen on a second pass, a frustration that has been repeated several times in the hunt for Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, missing since March 8 with 239 people aboard. It remains uncertain whether any of the objects came from the plane; they could have come from a cargo ship or something else.
"If it is confirmed to be MH370, at least then we can move on to the next phase of deep sea surveillance search," Hishammuddin said.
Various floating objects have been spotted by planes and satellites over the last week but none have been retrieved or positively identified as being parts of Flight MH370.
A total of 11 planes and five ships from the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand were participating in the search Thursday, hoping to find even a single piece of the jet that could offer tangible evidence of a crash and provide clues to find the rest of the wreckage.
Malaysia announced Monday that a mathematical analysis of the final known satellite signals from the plane showed that it had crashed in the sea, killing everyone on board.
Australia 'throwing everything we have' at search
The new data greatly reduced the search zone, but it remains huge — an area estimated at 1.6 million square kilometres, about the size of Alaska.
The remoteness of the region also makes it difficult for search crews trying to get there. Aircraft must travel about four hours from Perth to get to the area and have about two hours to search before they must fly the four hours back to their base of operations so they don't run out of fuel.
"We're throwing everything we have at this search," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Nine Network television on Wednesday.
"This is about the most inaccessible spot imaginable. It's thousands of kilometres from anywhere," he later told Seven Network television. He vowed that "we will do what we can to solve this riddle."
Also on Wednesday, Lloyd's of London, the world's oldest insurance market, says it stands ready to pay out claims for the loss of Flight MH370.
It's still far too early to speculate about the cost of the disaster, which will depend in part on what happened to the plane, said Lloyd's Chairman John Nelson. By way of example, he said it took two to three years to sort out what led to the crash of an Air France plane in 2009.
Debris would dash last hope
In Beijing, some families still held out a glimmer of hope their loved ones might somehow have survived. About two-thirds of the missing were Chinese, and their relatives have lashed out at Malaysia for essentially declaring their family members dead without any physical evidence of the plane's remains. Many also believe Malaysia has not been transparent or swift in communicating information about the status of the search.
Wang Chunjiang, whose brother was on the plane, said he felt "very conflicted."
"We want to know the truth, but we are afraid the debris of the plane should be found," he said while waiting at a hotel near the Beijing airport for a meeting with Malaysian officials. "If they find debris, then our last hope would be dashed. We will not have even the slightest hope."
China dispatched a special envoy to Kuala Lumpur, Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui, who met Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and other top officials Wednesday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
China, which now has Chinese warships and an icebreaker in the search zone, has been intent on supporting the interests of the Chinese relatives of passengers, backing their demands for detailed information on how Malaysia concluded the jet went down in the southern Indian Ocean.
That also is the likely reason why Chinese authorities — normally extremely wary of any spontaneous demonstrations that could undermine social stability — permitted a rare protest Tuesday outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing, during which relatives chanted slogans, threw water bottles and briefly tussled with police who kept them separated from a swarm of journalists.
No possibilities ruled out
The plane's bizarre disappearance shortly after it took off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing has proven to be one of the biggest mysteries in aviation.
Investigators have ruled out nothing so far — including mechanical or electrical failure, hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or someone else on board.
The search for the wreckage and the plane's flight data and cockpit voice recorders will be a major challenge. It took two years to find the black box from an Air France jet that went down in the Atlantic Ocean on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009, and searchers knew within days where the crash site was.
Race against the clock
There is a race against the clock to find Flight MH370's black boxes, whose battery-powered "pinger" could stop sending signals within two weeks. The batteries are designed to last at least a month.
On Wednesday, AMSA said a U.S. Towed Pinger Locator arrived in Perth along with Bluefin-21 underwater drone. The equipment will be fitted to the Australian naval ship, the Ocean Shield, but AMSA could not say when the locator would be deployed.
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David Ferreira, an oceanographer at the University of Reading in Britain, said little is known about the detailed topography of the seabed in the general area where the plane is believed to have crashed.
"We know much more about the surface of the moon than we do about the ocean floor in that part of the Indian Ocean," Ferreira said.
Kerry Sieh, the director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore, said the seafloor in the search area is relatively flat.
He said any large pieces of the plane would likely stay put once they have completely sunk. But recovering any part of the plane will be tough because of the sheer depth of the ocean in the search area — much of it between about 3,000 and 4,500 metres — and inhospitable conditions on the surface where intense winds and high swells are common.