Jet search cut short; new satellite spots objects
PERTH, Australia (AP) — Planes and ships searching for debris suspected of being from the missing Malaysian jetliner failed to find any Thursday before bad weather cut their hunt short, as Thailand said one of its satellites had spotted hundreds of objects in the area.
The Thai satellite spotted the objects floating in the southern Indian Ocean near an area where planes and ships have been hunting unsuccessfully for a week for any sign of debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared March 8 with 239 people aboard.
The images from the Thai satellite showed "300 objects of various sizes" in the ocean, about 2,700 kilometers (1,675 miles) southwest of Perth, said Anond Snidvongs, director of Thailand's space technology development agency.
He said the images, taken Monday by the Thaichote satellite, took two days to process and were relayed to Malaysian authorities on Wednesday.
The objects were about 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the area where a French satellite on Sunday spotted 122 objects, and ranged in size from 2 meters (six feet) to 16 meters (53 feet) long, Anond said.
The announcement came after the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said it had to pull back all 11 planes scheduled to take part in the search Thursday because of heavy rain, winds and low clouds. Five ships continued the hunt.
All but three of the planes — a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon, a Japanese P-3 Orion and a Japanese Gulfstream jet — reached the search zone, about 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth, before the air search was suspended, AMSA spokesman Sam Cardwell said.
They were there "maybe two hours" and they did not find anything, Cardwell said.
"They got a bit of time in, but it was not useful because there was no visibility," he said.
In a message on its Twitter account, AMSA said the bad weather was expected to last 24 hours.
Planes have been flying out of Perth for a week, looking without any success for objects spotted in vague satellite images, including the French one.
Finding them would give physical confirmation that Flight 370, which was scheduled to fly from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing, crashed. That would allow searchers to narrow the hunt for the wreckage of the Boeing 777 and its black boxes, which could solve the mystery of why the jet was so far off-course.
Malaysian officials said earlier this week that satellite data confirmed the plane crashed into the southern Indian Ocean. On Thursday, Malaysia Airlines ran a full-page condolence advertisement with a black background in a major newspaper.
"Our sincerest condolences go out to the loved ones of the 239 passengers, friends and colleagues. Words alone cannot express our enormous sorrow and pain," read the advertisement in the New Straits Times.
The 122 objects captured by the French satellite ranged in size from 1 meter (3 feet) to 23 meters (75 feet) long, but the search for them and the objects from the Thai satellite will have to wait until the weather in the search area improves, echoing the frustration of earlier sweeps that failed to zero in on three objects spotted by satellites.
Experts cautioned that the area's frequent high seas and bad weather and its distance from land were complicating an already-trying search.
"This is a really rough piece of ocean, which is going to be a terrific issue," said Kerry Sieh, director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore. "I worry that people carrying out the rescue mission are going to get into trouble."
Malaysia has been criticized over its handling of one of the most perplexing mysteries in aviation history. Much of the most strident criticism has come from relatives of the Chinese passengers, some of whom expressed outrage that Malaysia essentially declared their loved ones dead without recovering a single piece of wreckage.
China dispatched a special envoy to Kuala Lumpur, Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui, to deal with the crisis. Zhang met with Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein on Wednesday and received a briefing on the satellite data that "led to the conclusion that MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean," Malaysia's Ministry of Transport said in a statement.
On Thursday, Malaysian officials met with China's ambassador to Malaysia, Huang Huikang, "to request the government of China to engage and clarify the actual situation to the affected families in particular and the Chinese public in general," the statement said.
Though officials say Flight 370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean, they don't know why it disappeared shortly after takeoff. Investigators have ruled out nothing — including mechanical or electrical failure, hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or someone else on board.
On Wednesday, FBI Director James Comey told members of Congress that his investigators should finish in a day or two their analysis of electronics owned by the pilot and co-pilot, work that includes trying to recover files deleted from a home flight simulator used by Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah.
Finding the wreckage and the plane's flight data and cockpit voice recorders is a major challenge. It took two years to find the black box from Air France Flight 447, which went down in the Atlantic Ocean on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009, and searchers knew within days where that crash site was.
The Malaysian government statement said it was sending a team to Perth to assist with the search operation, but it did not give details.
The batteries on the recorders' "pingers" are designed to last 30 days. After that, the pings begin to fade in the same way that a flashlight with failing batteries begins to dim, said Chuck Schofield of Dukane Seacom Inc., a company that has provided Malaysia Airlines with pingers in the past. Schofield said the fading pings might last five days before the battery dies.
Once a general area is pinpointed for the wreckage, experts say salvagers will have to deal with ocean depths ranging from 3,000 to 4,500 meters (10,000 to 15,000 feet).