Objects spotted in new Indian Ocean search area

Friday 28 March 2014 23.52
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A New Zealand Air Force crew spotted debris in the new search area (Pic: EPA)
A New Zealand Air Force crew spotted debris in the new search area (Pic: EPA)
The search shifted after data showed the plane had travelled faster so would have run out of fuel sooner
The search shifted after data showed the plane had travelled faster so would have run out of fuel sooner
A handout image shows the new search area in the Indian Ocean, west of Perth
A handout image shows the new search area in the Indian Ocean, west of Perth

Australian authorities say the search area for the Malaysian airliner that went missing on 8 March with 239 people on board has shifted because of a "new credible lead".

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said it shifted the search around 594 nautical miles (1,100km) to the north, after receiving updated advice provided by an international investigation team in Malaysia.

AMSA said a plane spotted objects in the new search area, but the identity of the objects has not been established.

It said the sighting needs to be confirmed by those on board ships in the area, which will not happen until tomorrow.

The aircraft spotted objects of various colours during the search, which has now concluded for the day.

AMSA said photographic imagery of the objects was captured and will be assessed overnight.

The shift in the search area followed analysis of radar data that showed the missing plane had travelled faster, and so would have run out of fuel quicker than previously thought.

The new search area is larger, but closer to the Australian west coast city of Perth, allowing aircraft to spend longer onsite by shortening travel times.

It is also vastly more favourable in terms of the weather, as it is out of the deep sea region known as the Roaring 40s, named for its latitude and known for its huge seas and frequent storm-force winds.

"I'm not sure that we'll get perfect weather out there, but it's likely to be better more often than what we've seen in the past," said John Young, general manager of the emergency response division of AMSA.

He also said the previous search site was being abandoned.

"We have moved on from those search areas to the newest credible lead," he said.

For more than a week, ships and surveillance planes have been scouring seas 1,350 nautical miles (2,500km) southwest of Perth, where satellite images had suggested there could be debris from Flight MH370.

Ten aircraft searching today were immediately re-directed to the new area west of Perth.

A flotilla of Australian and Chinese ships will take time to shift north, however, with the Australian naval ship the HMAS Success not due to arrive until tomorrow morning.

The shift was based on analysis of radar data between the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau said.

At that time, the Boeing 777 was making a radical diversion west from its course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

ATSB Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan said radar and satellite polling data had been combined with information about the likely performance of the aircraft, speed and fuel consumption in particular, to arrive at the best assessment of the area in which the aircraft was likely to have entered the water.

An international investigative team continued to analyse the data, Mr Dolan said, which "could result in further refinement of the potential flight path of MH370".

Reports of sightings of suspected debris 

The new search area is the latest twist in the frustrating hunt for evidence in the near three-week search.

It comes less than a day after the latest reports of sightings of possible wreckage, captured by Thai and Japanese satellites in roughly the same frigid expanse of sea as earlier images reported by France, Australia and China.

Satellite images had shown suspected debris, including pieces as large as 24m long, within the original search area in the southern Indian Ocean.

Potential debris has also been seen from search aircraft, but none has been picked up or confirmed as the wreckage of Flight MH370, which disappeared from civilian radar screens less than an hour after taking off.

Officials believe someone on board may have shut off the plane's communications systems before flying it thousands of miles off course, where it crashed into the ocean in one of the most isolated and forbidding regions on the planet.

Theories range from a hijacking to sabotage or a possible suicide by one of the pilots, but investigators have not ruled out technical problems.

David Brewster, a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, said it was surprising that the new data analysis was just coming to light.

"The Malaysians have never really had to handle a search and rescue operation of this nature before so it is may be complicated by lack of experience," Mr Brewster said.

"There is no doubt they haven't got their systems working smoothly in terms of sharing within Malaysian organisations or with neighbouring countries."