KUALA LUMPUR/PERTH, AUSTRALIA – Fresh objects spotted by planes searching for a missing Malaysian passenger jet in a new area of the southern Indian Ocean have again raised hopes of unravelling the three-week old mystery.
Australian authorities coordinating the operation moved the air and sea search 1,100 km (685 miles) north on Friday after new analysis of radar and satellite data concluded Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 traveled faster and for a shorter distance after vanishing from civilian radar screens on March 8.
Five international aircraft spotted “multiple objects of various colors” in the new search area some 1,850 km (1,150 miles) west of Perth, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said Saturday. Some looked like they were from fishing boats and nothing could be confirmed until they were recovered by ships, it added.
One Chinese ship was in the area while another five Chinese vessels and one from Australia were on the way but would not arrive until later in the day.
“We are trying to find small bits of wreckage in a vast ocean, and while we are throwing everything at this, the search goes on,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in Sydney.
Malaysia says the Boeing 777, which vanished less than an hour into a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, was likely diverted deliberately but investigators have turned up no apparent motive or other red flags among the 227 passengers or the 12 crew.
U.S. officials close to the investigation said the FBI found nothing illuminating in data it had received from computer equipment used by MH370’s pilots, including a homemade flight simulator.
The search has involved more than two dozen countries and 60 aircraft and ships but has been bedevilled by regional rivalries and an apparent reluctance to share potentially crucial information due to security concerns.
Malaysian officials said the new search area was the result of a painstaking analysis of Malaysian military radar data and satellite readings from British company Inmarsat carried out by U.S., Chinese, British and Malaysian investigators.
“Information which had already been examined by the investigation was re-examined in light of new evidence drawn from the Inmarsat data analysis,” Malaysia’s acting transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, told a news conference Friday.
Engine performance analysis by the plane’s manufacturer Boeing helped investigators determine how long the plane could have flown before it ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean thousands of kilometers off course, they said.
Flight Lt. Jamin Baker was on a New Zealand Airforce Orion that spotted several items and dropped a marker buoy in “an area of interest” Friday.
“Obviously we don’t know if these (objects) are associated with the aircraft yet but it certainly looks like we are seeing a lot more debris and just general flotsam in the water, so we could be on to something here,” Baker said.
For more than a week, ships and surveillance planes had been scouring seas 2,500 km (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth, where satellite images had shown possible debris from Flight MH370. That search zone has now been abandoned.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) said the shift was based on analysis of radar data between the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. At that time, the Boeing 777 was making a radical diversion west from its course.
Malaysia’s civil aviation chief, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, said at Friday’s news conference he was “not at liberty” to give the exact path of the aircraft.
Officials close to the investigation told Reuters last week that the plane may have passed close to Port Blair, the capital of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, 550 miles (885 km) further northwest from where Malaysia has said its military radar last detected it.
At around 319,000 sq. km (123,000 sq. miles) — roughly the size of Poland — the new search area is larger, but closer to Perth, allowing aircraft to spend longer on site. It is also favorable in terms of the weather as it is out of the deep sea region known as the Roaring 40s because of its huge seas and frequent storm-force winds.
Searchers have perhaps a week to find debris, calculate the likely crash area and find the aircraft’s voice and data “black boxes” before batteries showing their location run out.