More than two weeks after flight 370 disappeared in mysterious circumstances, a major international search effort is scouring one of the world’s remotest stretches of ocean for clues about the location of the missing airliner.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said there was “increasing hope” the searchers would make a breakthrough. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority reported that pieces of debris had been sighted “with the naked eye, including a wooden pallet, within a radius of five kilometres”.
While there have been no reports of debris found in the northern search corridor, late on Sunday Malaysia revealed it had received French satellite imagery which showed debris in the Australian search corridor, the third such piece of satellite data since the search began. There were no further sightings on Sunday.
One of the objects located was estimated to be about the same size as an object captured on Tuesday by the Chinese satellite that appeared to be 22 metres by 13 metres, said a Malaysian official, who declined to be identified because he wasn’t authorised to speak to the media.
But when you add it to the other evidence, does this amount to progress in finding the airliner? A fortnight after it disappeared, is the search is zeroing in on flight 370? Here’s what we know.
PM: ‘Increasing hope’
Tony Abbott is cautiously optimistic that the search may be closing in on the jet.
On Sunday he said that “new Chinese satellite imagery does seem to suggest at least one large object down there, consistent with the object that earlier satellite imagery discovered which I told the Australian Parliament about last week”.
“Yesterday one of our civilian search aircraft got visuals on a number of objects in a fairly small area in the overall Australian search zone.
“Obviously we have now had a number of very credible leads and there is increasing hope, no more than hope, that we might be on the road to discovering what did happen.”
General manager of the AMSA emergency response division, John Young, said the Chinese images were incorporated into their search planning with further ‘visual’ searches occurring on Sunday.
“Several small objects of interest were identified by air observers on a civil aircraft in yesterday’s search,” AMSA said. “Further attempts will be made today to establish whether the objects sighted are related to MH370.”
In an update early on Monday, AMSA noted that there had been no sightings of significance on Monday.
However, a Malaysian official involved in the search said the French data consisted of radar echoes captured on Friday and converted into fuzzy images that located objects about 930km north of the places where the objects in the images released by Australia and China were located.
Malaysia’s latest statements
Meanwhile, Malaysia Airlines has noted the difficulties searchers face.
“Generally, conditions in the southern corridor are very challenging. The ocean varies between 1150 metres and 7000 metres in depth,” the airline stated. “In the area where the possible objects were identified by the Australian authorities there are strong currents and rough seas.”
“Five aircraft and two merchant ships were involved in the search and rescue operations in the vicinity of the objects identified by the Australian authorities … Despite improved visual search conditions yesterday, there were no sightings of the objects of interest.”
A Chinese satellite spotted a large object floating in the same south Indian Ocean area that has become a focal point in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.
A Chinese defence agency said on its website that satellite pictures taken around noon on Tuesday shows an object measuring 22.5 metres by 13 metres and located about 120km southwest of where Australia two days earlier captured images of two indistinct objects, one of them estimated at 24 metres long.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Australia quickly informed about the discovery.
“Whether the unusual floating object is related to the missing passenger plane awaits further analysis and verification,” he said.
According to AMSA Rescue Coordination Centre chief Mike Barton, as well as the wooden pallet, debris spotted in the water on Saturday included what appeared to be “nondescript items” such as strapping belts of different sizes and colours.
Mr Barton said they confirmed with airlines that wooden pallets were indeed a feature of air cargo, albeit of sea cargo also.
“We went to some of the expert airlines and the use of wooden pallets is quite common in the industry,” Mr Barton said.
“They’re usually packed into another container which is loaded in the belly of the aircraft … It’s a possible lead, but we will need to be very certain that this is a pallet because pallets are used in the shipping industry as well.”
— H2O Comms (@H2OComms) March 23, 2014
Sea and air search
AMSA’s John Young said more ships and aircraft had been made available, with two Chinese Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft arriving in Perth on Saturday ahead of beginning operations on Monday.
This will add to the four civil jets and more military aircraft that searched over the weekend.
The civil aircraft are two Bombardier Global Express, a Gulfstream 5 and an Airbus 319.
The four military planes are made up of three Orion aircraft (two from Australian and one from New Zealand) and a Poseidon aircraft from the United States.
A Chinese polar research ship Xue Long, which helped an Antarctic research ship in January, is also on the way to the search area and is expected to arrive on Tuesday.
The only ship currently in the area is HMAS Success, a Norwegian car carrier that searched the area for three days having left due to weather concerns.