French satellites reveal possible debris from Malaysia plane

A girl reads some of the messages of hope and support for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 at a mall outside Kuala Lumpur on Saturday.
Damir Sagolj | Reuters
A girl reads some of the messages of hope and support for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 at a mall outside Kuala Lumpur on Saturday.
Posted March 23, 2014, at 6:33 a.m.
Last modified March 23, 2014, at 10:43 a.m.

KUALA LUMPUR/PERTH — French satellite images show “floating debris” in the southern Indian Ocean, Paris said Sunday, which together with Chinese and Australian images of suspicious objects in the same wide area have focused the search for a missing Malaysian jetliner in remote seas off Australia.

The new lead came as the international search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 entered its third week, with still no confirmed trace of the Boeing 777 that vanished with 239 people on board.

“This morning, Malaysia received new satellite images from the French authorities showing potential objects in the vicinity of the southern corridor,” the Malaysian Transport Ministry said in a statement. “Malaysia immediately relayed these images to the Australian rescue coordination [center].”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had said there was “increasing hope” of a breakthrough in the hunt for the plane on the strength of Chinese and Australian images of possible large debris.

The French Foreign Ministry said radar echoes from a satellite put the new debris finding about 1,430 miles) from Perth, without giving a direction or a date.

The debris in the Australian image was about 1,553 miles southwest of Perth, and the Chinese sighting, captured two days later, was around 75 miles “south by west” of that.

“These elements have immediately been passed on to the Malaysian authorities,” the French ministry said in a statement. “France had decided to mobilize complementary satellite means to continue the search in the identified zone.”

Flight MH370 vanished from civilian radar screens early on March 8, less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur on a scheduled flight to Beijing.

An international force resumed its search efforts on Sunday, zeroing in on two areas around where the earlier sightings were made in an effort to find the object identified by China and other small debris, including a wooden pallet, spotted by a search plane on Saturday.

Nothing was found, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in a statement. The search area was covered in early sea fog, particularly in the western areas, but conditions improved during the day.

“The search will resume tomorrow,” Australian Maritime Safety Authority said. “Chinese military Ilyushin IL-76 aircraft and Japanese P-3C aircraft will join the search on Monday.”

China said the object it had seen on the satellite image was 74 feet long and 43 feet wide, floating in some of the most inhospitable sea territory on Earth.

It could not easily be determined from the blurred images whether the objects were the same as those detected by Australia, but the Chinese photograph could depict a cluster of smaller objects, said a senior military officer from one of the 26 nations involved in the search for the plane.

The wing of a Boeing 777-200ER is approximately 88 feet long and 45 feet wide at its base, according to estimates derived from publicly available scale drawings. Its fuselage is 208 feet long by 20 feet wide.

HIJACK OR SABOTAGE?

Investigators believe someone on the flight shut off the plane’s communications systems, and partial military radar tracking showed it turning west and recrossing the Malay Peninsula, apparently under the control of a skilled pilot.

That has led them to focus on hijacking or sabotage, but they have not ruled out technical problems. Faint electronic “pings” detected by a commercial satellite suggested it flew for another six hours or so, but could do no better than place its final signal on one of two vast arcs.

The lack of solid news has meant a prolonged and harrowing wait for families of the passengers, who have complained both in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur about the absence of information, many breaking down with grief. Most of the passengers boarding MH370 were Chinese.

The Malaysian statement said a “high-level” team briefed relatives in Beijing on Sunday in a meeting that lasted more than six hours.

While the southern arc is now the main focus of the search, Malaysia says efforts will continue in both corridors until confirmed debris is found.

“Hopefully we will eventually provide some sort of closure or at least understanding of what happened on board Malaysian Airlines Flight MA370,” Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said. “The search will continue and will continue as long as there’s hope.”

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