More satellite images have given searchers the latest clues in the hunt for the downed Malaysian jetliner, as planes flew out of Australia on Thursday trying to spot 122 objects seen floating in the turbulent Indian Ocean where officials believe the missing passenger jet may have crashed.
Almost two-thirds of the 239 people who died on the flight were from China, and the first search plane in the air was a Chinese Ilyushin IL-76 aircraft.
In total, 11 planes and five ships are set to scour a search area 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth on Australia’s western coast, but the Australian Maritime Safety Authority cautioned that weather was expected to deteriorate later Thursday.
Nineteen days into the mystery of Flight 370 that vanished early March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, the discovery of the objects that ranged in size from 1 meter (3 feet) to 23 meters (75 feet) offered “the most credible lead that we have,” a top Malaysian official said Wednesday.
A search Wednesday for the objects – seen by a French satellite – was unsuccessful, echoing the frustration of earlier sweeps that failed to zero in on three objects seen by satellites in recent days.
With the search in motion, Malaysian officials again sought to assuage the angry relatives of the flight’s 153 Chinese passengers. But Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein also expressed exasperation, pointedly saying Chinese families “must also understand that we in Malaysia also lost our loved ones,” as did “so many other nations.”
The latest satellite images, captured Sunday and relayed by French-based Airbus Defense and Space, are the first to suggest a debris field from the plane, rather than just isolated objects. The items were spotted in roughly the same area as other objects previously seen by Australian and Chinese satellites.
At a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Hishammuddin said some of them “appeared to be bright, possibly indicating solid materials.”
But experts cautioned that the area’s frequent high seas and bad weather and its distance from land complicated 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.”
Officials from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said Thursday’s search was split into two areas totaling 78,000 square kilometers (30,000 square miles).
Planes and ships from the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand are involved in the hunt, hoping to find even a single piece of the jet that could offer tangible evidence of a crash and provide clues to the location of the wreckage.
Malaysia said Monday that an analysis of the final known satellite signals continued…