BEIJING: A Chinese ship headed out at dawn Saturday in hopes of picking up deb ris in a new southern Indian Ocean search zone, raising hopes that the hunt for the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 might finally be homing in on its target.
Five aircraft from New Zealand and Australia reported sighting floating objects, one of which was said to be bluish-gray and rectangular.
“The objects cannot be verified or discounted as being from [Flight] MH370 until they are relocated and recovered by ships. It is not known how much flotsam, such as from fishing activities, is ordinarily there,” the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in a news release early Saturday. “At least one distinctive fishing object has been identified.”
The hint of a breakthrough came after Australian authorities coordinating the search announced Friday that a new analysis of satellite data suggested the Boeing 777 had run out of fuel sooner than originally believed, making it likely to have crashed 680 miles northeast of the area where ships and planes had been searching for more than a week.
“It indicated that the aircraft was traveling faster than previously estimated, resulting in
increased fuel usage and reducing the possible distance the aircraft traveled south into the Indian Ocean,” the Australian agency said on Friday.
The new area lies about 300 miles closer to the western coast of Australia and spans 123,000 square miles. The shorter distance from Perth means planes will be able to spend more time searching over a narrower area. Weather conditions and currents also are less rugged than in more southern latitudes.
China has taken the lead in the refocused search; its patrol ship Haixun 01 has been “on the scene for relocating objects from the first dawn,” the Australian agency said early Saturday. Other ships are not expected to reach the location until later in the day.
Flight 370, carrying 239 passengers and crew, disappeared March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing. Investigators believe the aircraft made a turn of nearly 180 degrees shortly after takeoff, eventually heading southwest into the Indian Ocean. The cause of that deviation remains a mystery.
As the search enters its third week, investigators face the strong possibility that wreckage has drifted widely, further complicating efforts to identify an undersea debris field and try to find the aircraft’s data and voice recorders.
The British satellite company Inmarsat used hourly “handshake” communication signals from the plane to determine that it had followed one of two tracks: north toward Central Asia or south into the Indian Ocean. Subsequent analysis eliminated the northern route by analyzing frequency shifts in the signal.
The new information, however, still gives investigators only “a crude indication” of where the flight might have ended, said Bradford W. Parkinson, who led the Pentagon team that developed the Global Positioning System at a military base in El Segundo in the 1970s.
“As long as they have accurate time stamps on when signals were sent from the aircraft or satellite, then they have something to go on,” Parkinson said.
Although closer to shore, the new search area may be deeper and obscure a more complex topography than more distant sites, warned David Gallo, who managed search expeditions for Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Brazil in 2009.
Broken Ridge, an underwater cliff, plunges to a depth of about 15,000 feet below the surface of the new search zone, about 3,000 feet deeper than where the Air France wreckage was found, Gallo said.
“This new region could be horrific to search,” said Gallo, special operations director at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “Underwater sonar will be bouncing off boulders the size of houses.”
The US Navy has deployed a system called the Towed Pinger Locator 25 that hovers about 1,000 feet off the sea floor, in hopes of detecting an acoustic pulse from the aircraft’s two “black boxes,” which may have as little as a week of battery life left.
The Navy said its system can hear a pinger at a “maximum depth of 20,000 feet anywhere in the world.”