New Malaysia plane search area turns up multiple objects

AP

Australian officials moved the search area for the lost Malaysian jetliner 1,100 km (680 miles) to the northeast Friday following a new analysis of radar data, and planes quickly found multiple objects in the new zone.

Five out of 10 aircraft hunting for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 found objects of various colors Friday, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said. It said it was not clear whether the objects were from the plane, and photos of them would be analyzed overnight.

AMSA said the items included two rectangular objects that were blue and gray — among the colors of the missing plane. A Chinese patrol ship in the area will attempt to locate the objects on Saturday, it said.

The three-week hunt for the jet has been filled with possible sightings, with hundreds of objects identified by satellite and others by plane, but so far not a single piece of debris has been confirmed.

Australian officials said they turned away from the old search area, which they had combed for a week, because a new analysis of radar data suggests the plane had flown faster and therefore ran out of fuel more quickly than previously estimated. The new area is closer to land and has calmer weather than the old one, which will make searching easier.

“We have moved on” from the old search area, said John Young, manager of AMSA’s emergency response division.

The radar data that was re-analyzed was received soon after Flight 370 lost communications and veered from its scheduled path March 8. The Beijing-bound flight carrying 239 people turned around soon after taking off from Kuala Lumpur, flew west toward the Strait of Malacca and disappeared from radar.

The search area has changed several times since the plane vanished as experts analyzed a frustratingly small amount of data from the aircraft, including the radar signals and “pings” that a satellite picked up for several hours after radar and voice contact was lost.

The latest analysis indicated the aircraft was traveling faster than previously estimated, resulting in increased fuel use and reducing the possible distance it could have flown before going down in the Indian Ocean. Just as a car loses gas efficiency when driving at high speeds, a plane will get less out of a tank of fuel when it flies faster.

Malaysia’s civil aviation chief, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur that personnel at Boeing Co. in Seattle had helped with the analysis of the flight.

Planes and ships had spent a week searching about 2,500 km (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth, Australia, the base for the search. Now they are searching about 1,850 km (1,150 miles) west of the city.

“This is our best estimate of the area in which the aircraft is likely to have crashed into the ocean,” Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said at a news conference in Canberra.

He said a wide range of scenarios went into the calculation. “We’re looking at the data from the so-called pinging of the satellite, the polling of the satellites, and that gives a distance from a satellite to the aircraft to within a reasonable approximation,” he said. He said that information was coupled with various projections of aircraft performance and the plane’s distance from the satellites at given times.

Dolan said the search now is for surface debris to give an indication of “where the main aircraft wreckage is likely to be. This has a long way to go.”

A number of the objects spotted Friday were white or light in color, AMSA said, adding that the finds needed to be confirmed by ship.

Young said the hundreds of floating objects detected over the last week by satellites in the former search area, previously considered possible wreckage, “may or may not actually be objects.”

“In regards to the old areas, we have not seen any debris and I would not wish to classify any of the satellite imagery as debris, nor would I want to classify any of the few visual sightings that we made as debris. That’s just not justifiable from what we have seen,” he said.

But in Malaysia, Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said at a news conference that because of ocean drifts, “this new search area could still be consistent with the potential objects identified by various satellite images over the past week.”

The new search area is about 80 percent smaller than the old one, but it remains large: about 319,000 sq. km (123,000 sq. miles), about the size of Poland or New Mexico.

Sea depths in the new area range from 2,000 meters (6,560 feet) to 4,000 meters (13,120 feet), Young said. There are trenches in the area that go even deeper, Australia’s national science agency said in a statement. That includes the Diamantina trench, which is up to 7,300 meters (24,000 feet) deep, but it was unclear whether the deepest parts of the trench are in the search area.

If the wreckage is especially deep, that will complicate search efforts. The U.S. Navy is sending equipment that can hear “black box” pings up to about 6,100 meters (20,000 feet) deep, and an unmanned underwater vehicle that operates at depths up to 4,500 meters (14,800 feet).