Plane Search Revived by Chinese Image of Drifting Object

A Chinese satellite detected an object in the southern Indian Ocean that’s almost the width of an Olympic-size swimming pool, giving fresh impetus to the hunt for the Malaysian airliner that disappeared two weeks ago.

The image, taken on March 18, shows an object measuring 22 meters (72-feet) by 13 meters, according to a statement from China’s state administration of science, technology and industry for national defense. The item was located 120 kilometers from where possible debris was found by satellite two days earlier.

debrisinchina_small Plane Search Revived by Chinese Image of Drifting Object

Today’s development rekindles hopes of a breakthrough in the mystery of the Malaysian plane after radar scans and visual searches failed to relocate the objects spotted in the earlier images and analysis of a flight simulator found at the home of the plane’s pilot’s produced no leads. The search is focused on an area of the Indian Ocean spanning 36,000 square kilometers.

“It is a very remote area but we intend to continue the search until we are absolutely satisfied that further searching would be futile,” Warren Truss, deputy to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, said today at a Royal Australian Air Force Base Pearce near Perth. “That day is not in sight.”

Similar Dimensions

The Chinese satellite photo is from a point 90 degrees east and almost 45 degrees south, compared with coordinates of almost 91 degrees east and 44 degrees south for the March 16 image, putting the object to the southwest of the last sighting.

The dimensions of the item recorded in the latest scan appear similar to those of the larger of the two objects seen previously, which was said to be about 24 meters long. The Malaysian plane, a Boeing Co. (BA) 777-200, measures 63 meters long, with a wingspan of 61 meters and a cabin diameter of 6.2 meters.

“China hopes these data will be helpful to the search,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said of the satellite image. “It still needs to be analyzed and verified on whether or not the floating object is connected to the missing plane.”

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation joined the probe as Malaysian authorities seek to retrieve deleted data on the home-computer flight simulator belonging to the jet’s captain.

The simulator, which has been reconstructed, hasn’t produced any clear lead for investigators, Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters today. Authorities had earlier discovered that some data was deleted from the simulator and had sent files overseas for analysis.

Cockpit Conversation

Britain’s Daily Telegraph published what it said was a transcript of communications between the 777’s cockpit and ground control, which included instructions on takeoff and flight altitude. The exchange ended with the cockpit’s response of “All right, good night” at 1:19 a.m.

Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, head of Malaysia’s civil aviation authority, said the transcript isn’t accurate, and Hishammuddin said that the exchanges indicated nothing abnormal, though the record won’t be released publicly as it’s still being analyzed.

Neither have investigators found any link between the aircraft’s cargo, which included lithium batteries, and its disappearance, Hishammuddin said

“My biggest concern is that if we are not able to identify the debris, having to go back to the two corridors is a huge and massive area,” he said. “This is unprecedented.”

Cyclone Threat

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said last week that Malaysian Flight 370 emitted pulse-like signals to a satellite about seven hours after last making voice contact, shifting the focus of the search to two arcs, one extending north to Kazakhstan and the other into the southern Indian Ocean.

In the northern zone, there have been no indications of the missing airplane on radar in China, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Laos, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, Hishammuddin said.

Already facing strong currents and rough seas, the Indian Ocean search 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth could be disrupted by Tropical Cyclone Gillian, Azharuddin told reporters near Kuala Lumpur airport. The cyclone is currently further north, closer to Christmas Island.

Australia said two merchant vessels were assisting the hunt today, while China is deploying at least seven ships, according to the Xinhua News Agency, a flotilla that reflects the urgency it attaches to finding Flight 370, whose complement of 239 passengers and crew included more than 150 Chinese.

Long-Range Planes

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said 10 State Emergency Service volunteers from Western Australia were flying aboard ultra long-range jets with the capability of five hours of search time, compared with two hours for the other planes.

The commercial aircraft were chartered, according to the agency, which didn’t identify the owners.

HMAS Success from the Royal Australian Navy is heading to the area and is due there later today, AMSA said in its daily update. Britain is sending HMS Echo, a specialist ship with underwater listening gear and equipment to survey the seabed.

The U.S., which is also searching the southern Indian Ocean, was also asked by Malaysia to provide underwater search technology, the Defense Department said in a statement.

U.S. spending on the hunt has cost $2.5 million so far, a Defense Department spokesman, Army Colonel Steve Warren, said yesterday in Washington. The department has set aside $4 million, a sum that includes the expense of sending two destroyers, helicopters and patrol aircraft.

Flying Steadily

“Although this search area is much smaller than what we started with, it nonetheless is a big area when you’re looking out the window and trying to see something by eye,” John Young, general manager of emergency response at the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, said yesterday. “We may have to do this a few times to be confident about the coverage.”

An analysis of satellite pings shows that the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS) 777 may have flown steadily across the ocean after diverting from its scheduled route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. That assessment gave the clearest idea yet on how investigators pinpointed a search zone.

Engineers at Inmarsat Plc (ISAT), whose satellite picked up the pings, plotted seven positions for the jet on March 8, Chris McLaughlin, a company spokesman, said in an interview. The plane flew steadily away from the satellite over the equator while pinging, McLaughlin said.

The data helped investigators conclude that the most logical path was progressively either north or south. U.S. investigators have focused the search to the south, where Australia is leading the scouring of the ocean.

‘More Solid’

“Even though this is not a definite lead, it is probably more solid than any other lead around the world and that’s why so much effort and interest is being put into this search,” Truss said.

When officials estimated the plane was flying at or near its cruising speed of more than 800 kilometers per hour, it produced a probable path the engineers were “very confident” about, McLaughlin said.

The engineers don’t know the plane’s track for certain because the satellite pings can only be used to estimate an arc along the Earth’s surface where it would have been, he said.

“You can assume the tracking was based on what the autopilot was set for on the 777,” he said.

If the Inmarsat estimates are accurate, it would have been impossible for the plane to have landed before its satellite transmitter sent the last ping at 8:11 a.m., almost seven hours after it left Malaysian airspace, according to McLaughlin’s account. Because more fuel is burned at lower altitudes, it also suggests the plane remained at cruising altitude.

In Control

The plane was flying at 872 kph at 10,668 meters at 1:21 a.m. when its transponder stopped functioning and it disappeared from Malaysian’s civilian radar system, according to FlightRadar24, a flight-tracking company.

The engineers at Inmarsat were able to validate their estimates of the plane’s location by matching its position at 1:07 a.m., when it sent a burst of data through its Aircraft Communications and Reporting System, McLaughlin said. That final transmission on Acars included a GPS position that was used to calibrate the other estimates, he said.

The Inmarsat analysis is consistent with details suggesting that, at least initially, the path was commanded from the cockpit, John Cox, president of Washington-based Safety Operating Systems, said in an interview. It still doesn’t answer what may have happened to the plane and what led it to fly for so long, he said.