Published March 26, 2014
A French company is mobilizing five satellites in a bid to help search crews locate missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 after it captured images of 122 objects that potentially belong to the plane.
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.
Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s acting transport minister, announced the findings on Wednesday and said the objects were seen close to where three other satellites previously detected possible debris in the southern Indian Ocean. He added that the sightings together are "the most credible lead that we have."
Clouds obscured the images, but dozens of objects could be seen in the gaps, ranging in length from 1 yard to 25 yards. Hussein said some of them "appeared to be bright, possibly indicating solid materials."
Australian officials did not say whether they received the French imagery in time for search planes out at sea to look for the possible debris field Wednesday, and did not return repeated phone messages from The Associated Press seeking further comment.
Other searches for various floating objects yielded no results Wednesday, and Australia's Bureau of Meteorology warned that the weather was expected to deteriorate again Thursday, with thunderstorms, low clouds and strong winds on the way.
A total of 12 planes and five ships from the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand are participating in the search, 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.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), which is coordinating the southern search operation on Malaysia's behalf, said the focus Wednesday was on a 30,900-square-mile swathe of ocean. The area is about 1,240 miles southwest of Perth.
Objects have been spotted by planes and satellites over the past week, including on Wednesday, when AMSA sent a tweet saying three more objects were seen. The authority said two objects viewed from a civil aircraft appeared to be rope, and that a New Zealand military plane spotted a blue object.
But none of the objects were seen on a second pass, a frustration that has been repeated several times in the hunt for Flight 370, 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 we can then move on to the next phase of deep sea surveillance search," Hussein said.
Meanwhile, authorities are investigating a “partial ping” sent between the missing plane and a satellite eight minutes after its last complete transmission.
After the jet vanished off radar screens, it linked up every hour for six hours with a satellite operated by Inmarsat, a British satellite communications company, according to The Wall Street Journal. The “partial ping” could shed light on what happened to the plane before it stopped flying.
"At this time, this transmission is not understood and is subject to further ongoing work," Hussein told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday.
Inmarsat is investigating the transmission as "a failed login" to its satellite network or as a "potential attempt by the system [aboard the aircraft] to reset itself," The Wall Street Journal reported.
"We're not looking at this [partial ping] as someone trying to turn on the system and communicate," said Chris McLaughlin, senior vice president of Inmarsat.
By analyzing specific features of these digital handshakes between the jet and the satellite, Inmarsat officials were able to plot a direction and general course for Flight 370.
Malaysia announced earlier this week that a mathematical analysis of the final known satellite signals from the plane had proved beyond doubt it had gone down in the sea, taking the lives of all 227 passengers and 12 crew members on board.
Malaysia Airlines’ Chairman, Mohammed Nor Mohammed Yusof, warned it may take a long time for further answers to become clear.
There is also a race against the clock to find Flight 370'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 a Bluefin-21 underwater drone to help in the search. The equipment will be fitted to the Australian naval ship, the Ocean Shield, but AMSA could not say when they would be deployed.
The new data from the satellite signals a vastly shrinking search zone, but it remains huge -- an area estimated at 622,000 square miles, about the size of Alaska.
In Beijing, some families held out a glimmer of hope their loved ones might somehow have survived. About two-thirds of the missing are 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 that the Malaysian officials have not been transparent or swift in communicating information with them about the status of the search.
Malaysian government and airline officials visited Beijing Wednesday to speak with relatives of passengers on board the missing plane. The officials gave a PowerPoint presentation and read a report by investigators from Britain's Air Accidents Investigation Branch concluding that Flight 370 went down in the southern Indian Ocean.
But the relatives were still skeptical of the information — and hostile.
"It's all lies. Not a shred of truth!" said a man who identified himself as Mr. Zhang from the Chinese city of Harbin. He said afterward that he had wanted to pummel everyone giving the presentation.
During a nearly two-hour question-and-answer session, audience members asked how investigators could have reached conclusions about the direction and speed of the plane, and delegation members said they didn't have the technical expertise to answer.
In Malaysia's main city of Kuala Lumpur, meanwhile, Hussein urged calm and understanding on both sides.
"Time will heal emotions that are running high. We fully understand," Hussein told a news conference. "For the Chinese families, they must also understand that we in Malaysia also lost our loved ones. There are so many other nations that have lost their loved ones."
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.
Investigators have ruled out nothing so far to explain the plane’s disappearance -- including mechanical or electrical failure, hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or someone else on board.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.