A lookout is stationed on the bow of HMAS Success during the search for signs of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. (AP)
Kuala Lumpur, March 26 : Malaysia’s defence minister announced this evening that Airbus Defence and Space, Europe’s main commercial satellite company, had forwarded images taken on Sunday of 122 objects floating southwest of Australia and said that his country had asked Australia to check if they were debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
While the objects might turn out to be unrelated to the aircraft, defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein said, “This is still the most credible lead that we have.”
The objects are up to 23 meters, or 75 feet, in length, and are visible through gaps in clouds over an area of 400 square kilometres, or 154 square miles, he said. Some of the objects are bright, he noted without elaboration. Metal objects that had recently entered the ocean might tend to be reflective.
Malaysia forwarded the information to Australia on Wednesday afternoon, and it is unclear if the floating objects can be checked before dark or whether an inspection check may need to wait until tomorrow, Hishammuddin added.
The floating objects are 2,557km,or 1,589 miles, southwest of Perth.
If the debris turns out to be from the missing plane, the next step would be to figure out how far it might have drifted from where the aircraft might have splashed down, so as to begin an undersea search, he said.
The US Navy has sent an undersea listening device and a sonar device. But each needs to be towed far underwater behind a ship travelling scarcely faster than a person walking on land.
The listening device can pick up the data recorders’ signals if it comes within as little as a mile of them but the signals will go silent within a couple weeks anyway. The sonar will work even after the data recorders go silent, but needs to be even closer to detect wreckage on the seabed.
Finding floating debris would help provide closure for the families and friends of the passengers and crew, but may prove of limited use in locating the data recorders on the bottom of the ocean, oceanographers cautioned. Debris could have drifted hundreds of miles in the 18 days since the plane disappeared, said Jianping Gan, an oceanographer at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who has done research aboard a Chinese icebreaker in the waters around Antarctica.
“Even if you’ve got floating material, if it has been floating for two-and-a-half weeks, it’s not going to have much relation to the wreckage” on the seabed, said Jason Ali, an earth sciences professor at Hong Kong University who has studied currents in the Indian Ocean.
Australian officials discussed the continuing search effort for any crash debris of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which was halted because of bad weather.
Michael Purcell, a senior engineer from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, who led two underwater search expeditions for the wreck of Air France Flight 447 in 2010 and 2011, said the current search zone for Flight 370 was far more remote than the location of the Air France wreckage and that the seas and weather conditions were known to be considerably rougher.
“That can slow down your progress considerably, because it makes it more difficult to operate, to get the vehicles in and out of the water,” and bad weather can mean days of waiting to resume the search, Purcell said.
Purcell estimated that there were fewer than a dozen underwater search vehicles in the world equipped with the sonar and imaging technology required for a deep water search of this scale. These are operated by a small handful of private companies and oceanographic institutes as well as the US Navy, he said.
Purcell said one advantage was that the sea floor in the southern Indian Ocean was relatively flat compared to the highly varied terrain of the mid-Atlantic. The depth of the water is comparable, however, at more than 10,000 feet.
Military submarines have sophisticated equipment for listening for ships or other submarines. But unlike towed sonar like the Bluefin-21, which the US Navy is sending which can descend to 14,700 feet, or a towed pinger detector, which can plunge 20,000 feet, military submarines are designed to operate within a few hundred feet of the surface.
That limits their ability to detect pings from far below the surface in water of different densities, moving at different speeds and at different temperatures. For now, aircraft have been following the standard procedure of looking in the area the size of the western and southwestern US.