- 4 Australian airplanes searching for wreckage end Thursday mission
- Searchers set to scour same section of Indian Ocean tomorrow
- Satellite images show two objects floating about 2,500 km southwest of Perth, Australia
The search for possible debris from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has resumed in the southern Indian Ocean on Friday after aircraft and ships halted to wait out the night and a lengthy search on Thursday failed to find any trace of the jet.
Australian military aircraft spent Thursday afternoon and evening flying over a remote area and a cargo vessel was rerouted there to determine whether two large floating objects spotted by satellite are pieces of wreckage from the Malaysian jet missing for almost two weeks.
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No certain wreckage from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has been found since it disappeared on March 8, sparking one of the largest search efforts in aviation history and raising questions about what happened to the plane carrying 239 people.
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"It is credible enough to divert the research to this area on the basis it provides a promising lead to what might be wreckage from the debris field," said Air Commodore John McGarry of Australia's Department of Defence at a news conference.
Satellite imagery analyzed by experts discovered two objects of a "reasonable size" bobbing up and down in the southern Indian Ocean, said John Young, general manager of Australia's Maritime Safety Authority. The objects were spotted about 2,500 kilometres southwest of Perth, in an area where the ocean is about 3,000 metres deep.
The largest object appears to be about 24 metres, he said — with the second object being smaller at about five metres. A number of smaller items appear to be scattered around the large object, 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," he said.
The images came from a DigitalGlobe commercial satellite that scans the Earth from the north to south, said Tim Brown, a satellite imagery expert at GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Va.
These kinds of satellites can look left to right, but the further they look to the side, the lower quality the images will be. There are other limitations. Because of their orbits, they can only scan a specific section of the Earth at certain times each day, much like the sun is only overhead part of the day.
Commercial satellites may be able to pick up stripes on a parking lot by using interpretation software and the contrast of the colours of the stripes and asphalt, but a similar size object in the ocean could easily be missed, said Joseph Bermudez Jr., chief analytics officer and co-founder AllSource Analysis, which specializes in satellite imagery.
They aren't like those in the movies that can, say, read a car's license plate from space. And the images are not going to be as clear as those taken by a drone, which is much closer to the Earth.
Norwegian ship continued unofficial search
Despite the official search being halted for the night, the owner of a Norwegian car carrier said it planned to search through the night for the two large objects.
The Hoegh St. Petersburg was the first ship to arrive in the area where the two objects were spotted by satellite four days ago in one of the remotest parts of the globe, around 2,500 km (1,500 miles) southwest of Perth.
"We will continue searching during the night at reduced speed and with all spotlights available, and we will increase the speed again when the light comes back (around 2300 GMT)," Ingar Skiaker, Chief Executive of Hoegh Autoliners, told a news conference in Oslo.
"We have not had any report of any finds, but if or when they find something... the captain will report to the Australian authorities first," he said.
Hoegh Autoliners said as far as they knew theirs was still the only ship in the area in the southern Indian Ocean, with other ships on their way and expected to arrive tomorrow.
Weather in the search area had included clouds and rain, but CBC meteorologist Jay Scotland said early Thursday that the weather in the area was improving over the next few hours, and he expected clear skies for 24 hours and possibly more.
An unprecedented multinational search for the plane has focused on two vast corridors: one arcing north overland from Laos towards the Caspian Sea, the other curving south across the Indian Ocean from west of Indonesia's Sumatra island to west of Australia.
Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the larger, established search will continue even as the Australian images are investigated. However, the effort is mostly concentrated south of the equator over the vast Indian Ocean.
Out of a total of 29 aircraft, 18 ships and six ship-borne helicopters deployed in the operation, only four aircraft are now scouring the north.
Military planes from Australia, the U.S. and New Zealand have been searching in a region over the southern Indian Ocean that was narrowed down from 600,000 square kilometres to 305,000 square kilometres.
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"The most likely scenario is that an aircraft will find an object, if it is findable, and then report back an accurate GPS position," Young said. "And AMSA would task the ship to proceed to the area and attempt to see it.
"That would be our first chance to get a close up look of whatever the objects might be and progressively advance the identification of whether they’re associated with the search or not."
Young warned that satellite images "do not always turn out to be related to the search even if they look good, so we will hold our views on that until they are sighted close-up."
He said commercial satellites had been redirected in the hope of getting higher resolution images. He did not say when that would happen. The current images, which were taken March 16, are not sharp enough to determine any markings.
Finding floating wreckage is possible
David Gallo, the U.S. project leader in the search for a missing Air France flight in 2009, said based on the descriptions provided by officials of two larger objects surrounded by multiple smaller objects, the discovery is sounding increasingly like a debris field.
Based on the size described, Gallo predicts it could turn out to be a piece of the plane's wing or fuselage, which is the main body of an aircraft.
"It sounds like the plane was landed fairly gently," said Gallo, assuming the objects are identified as wreckage from flight MH370. "It wasn’t nose-dived into the surface of the ocean, if it is in fact the plane."
Other experts told CBC News the objects may end up being containers that fell from cargo ships.
John Blaxland, a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Australian National University, said he suspects it's a container and that it will be hard to find no matter what it is.
"The photo is four days old, and that means the currents would have moved this object, possibly quite a long ways, and not only that, it may have submerged further.”
Families hold out hope
The families of the passengers and crew on board the missing flight appear to be holding out hope that this will either fail to be wreckage or survivors will be found, CBC News reporter Andrew Lee said from a hotel in Beijing where many of the families are staying.
Lee said he spoke to one man, who was aware of the satellite imagery, who said he believes his son is still alive and won't believe otherwise unless he sees a body. The father said families have had to cope with a great deal of misinformation, making it difficult to believe this new development.
Lee said families in the hotel are on "razor-thin edge to begin with" and emotions ran high after they were briefed on the possible findings.
People rushed out of the briefing room, many with their heads down and tears on their faces, he said.
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Investigators believe that someone with detailed knowledge of both the Boeing 777-200ER and commercial aviation navigation switched off the plane's communications systems before diverting it thousands of kilometres off its scheduled course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Exhaustive background checks of the passengers and crew aboard have not yielded anything that might explain why.
The FBI is helping Malaysian authorities analyze data from a flight simulator belonging to the captain of the missing plane, after initial examination showed some data logs had been deleted early last month. Hishammuddin said he had no new information on efforts to recover those files.