News yesterday of a Chinese satellite identifying another object in the Indian Ocean has given new impetus to the search for the missing flight MH370 as it enters the third week.
As more aircraft and ships headed to join an international search operation scouring some of the remotest seas on Earth, acting Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said yesterday the latest satellite sighting was of an object measuring about 22.5m long and 13m wide.
Dr John Blaxland was quoted by Chinese news agency Xinhua as saying if the measurements were correct, they were consistent with a wing of a Boeing 777-200ER aircraft, the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) reported today.
Asked if the newly spotted object would be similar to the ones sighted in an earlier satellite image, Blaxland, a senior fellow from the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, said they do not appear to be the same.
"It's similar shaped, but if the measurements (are correct), then this is slightly wider," he said.
The high-definition earth observation satellite Gaofen-1 spotted the object about midnight on March 18, according to China’s State Administration of Science Technology and Industry for National Defence, the SMH said.
Reuters had quoted Xinhua as saying that the suspicious object spotted by the Chinese satellite was floating 120km from possible debris announced by Australia earlier in the search for the missing aircraft.
The object was in the area of the southern corridor – one of two possible routes that investigators said they think flight MH370 took.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), however, appeared to downplay the latest finding, stating it had searched the area earlier yesterday and sighted no such debris, reported SMH.
But it said further attempts would be made when the search resumed today to establish whether the objects spotted are related to the missing MH370.
It said China provided the satellite image to Australia on Saturday night.
"AMSA has plotted the position and it falls within Saturday’s search area. The object was not sighted on Saturday," the statement continued.
Despite that, the search team would take the information into account when plotting today's search plans, reported SMH.
Reuters also quoted AMSA as saying that one of its aircraft had reported sighting a number of "small objects" with the naked eye, including a wooden pallet, within a radius of 5km.
A Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3 Orion aircraft took a closer look but only reported seeing clumps of seaweed. It dropped a marker buoy to track the movement.
"A merchant ship in the area has been tasked to relocate and seek to identify the material," AMSA said.
Australia, which is coordinating the rescue, has cautioned that the objects in the satellite image might be a lost shipping container or other debris, and may have sunk since the picture was taken.
"Even though this is not a definite lead, it is probably more solid than any other lead around the world and that is why so much effort and interest is being put into this search," Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss had told reporters before latest Chinese image was reported.
China said its icebreaker "Snow Dragon" was heading for the area, but was still around 70 hours away.
Japan and India were also sending more planes and Australian and Chinese navy vessels were steaming towards the southern search zone, reported Reuters.
The area is known for rough seas and strong currents, and Hishammuddin had said yesterday that a cyclone warning had been declared for Christmas Island, far off to the north.
"There are vessels heading in that direction. They may have to go through the cyclone," he said, adding that generally, conditions in the southern corridor were challenging with the ocean varying between 1,150m and 7,000m in depth.
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.
Investigators believe someone on board shut off the plane's communications systems, and partial military radar tracking showed it turning west and re-crossing the 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.
Electronic "pings" detected by a commercial satellite suggested it flew for another six hours or so either along a northern corridor from Laos to the Caspian Sea, or a southern one stretching from Indonesia down to the part of the Indian Ocean that has become the focal point of the search.