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Malaysia Gets Airbus Satellite Images as Search Resumes

By Manirajan Ramasamy and Angus Whitley
March 26, 2014 3:21 PM EDT 32 Comments
Malaysian Defense Minister and acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein shows pictures of possible debris in Kuala Lumpur on March 26, 2014.
Photographer: Azhar Rahim/EPA
Malaysian Defense Minister and acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein shows pictures of possible debris in Kuala Lumpur on March 26, 2014.

Malaysia said it received satellite images of more than 100 potential objects in the southern Indian Ocean from Airbus Group NV (AIR), giving the 19-day search for missing Flight 370 a new focus.

The images, taken on March 23, showed 122 objects in a 400-square kilometer area, about 2,557 kilometers (1,590 miles) from the western Australian city of Perth, Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said today. Some were a meter in length, and others were as long as 23 meters. Some objects appeared to be bright, possibly indicating they were solid, he said in Kuala Lumpur.

“We cannot tell whether the potential objects are from MH370,” Hishammuddin said. “Nevertheless, this is another new lead that will help direct the search operation.”

Full coverage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370:

The satellite images provide the latest direction in a multi-nation search to find the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS) aircraft that vanished on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew on board. Ships and aircraft from six nations scoured the Indian Ocean again today amid a forecast for rain and thunderstorms tomorrow.

The hunt for Flight 370 resumed after yesterday’s pause for bad weather. Malaysian Air has said there’s no hope of survivors on the Boeing Co. (BA) 777-200ER plane.

Bad Weather

“A considerable amount” of objects have been spotted, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in a parliamentary session today that was attended by family members of the six Australians on the plane flying to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. “Bad weather and inaccessibility have so far prevented any of it being recovered, but we are confident some will be.”

Authorities were also looking into what may be the final signal sent from the Malaysian jet, which may help the investigators reduce the search area.

Investigators used satellite data from Inmarsat Plc (ISAT) to try and find Flight 370. With the plane’s communications systems having been shut and no wreckage found, the engineers’ conclusions have been the closest thing to a resolution of the longest disappearance in modern airline history.

Malaysia said yesterday it needed time to analyze communications between the jet and the satellite. Based on aircraft speed, it was then possible to estimate positions when the last “complete handshake,” or communication, took place.

Partial Handshake

There is evidence of a “partial handshake” from the aircraft eight minutes after the complete communication, Hishammuddin said yesterday. “This transmission is not understood and is subject to further ongoing work,” he said at a briefing.

The partial communication may help narrow down the search area, according to Andrew Herdman, director general of the Kuala Lumpur-based Association of Asia Pacific Airlines and Chris de Lavigne, an aviation and defense analyst at Frost & Sullivan in Singapore.

“If you can pin down more accurately what happened in those final minutes, final hour, then that can narrow the search area considerably,” Herdman said. “That’s why I think they are focusing on what they can induce from the fragmentary handshake.”

The U.S. FBI should “within a day or two” finish examining the contents of computer drives in the home flight simulator built by Flight 370’s captain, Director James B. Comey told a congressional committee today. Malaysia asked for the FBI’s help retrieving files deleted from the simulator last month.

12 Aircraft

“I get briefed on it every morning,” Comey said. “I have teams working literally around the clock to try and exploit that. I don’t want to say more about that in an open setting. But I expect it to be done fairly shortly within a day or two, to finish that work.”

The FBI has received good cooperation from Malaysia, he said. Agents there “speak to their counterparts every single day and update them, and get new information from them if they have it,” he said.

Seven military and five civilian planes were deployed in the search area, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.

An Australian P3 Orion, a Chinese Ilyushin IL-76, a New Zealand Orion and three Australian civilian aircraft were assigned to the eastern section of the search area, Hishammuddin said.

Pinger Locator

The western portion was assigned to a U.S. P8 Poseidon, a civilian plane, and four Orions -- two from Australia and one each from South Korea and Japan.

Australia’s HMAS Success searched a zone where an Australian P3 Orion saw objects on March 24. China’s polar-supply ship Xue Long was deployed to the eastern sector, Hishammuddin said.

A Japanese coast-guard Gulfstream aircraft left Subang in Malaysia for Perth to join the operation, he said.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said March 24 the jet’s last position was in the middle of the Indian Ocean off Australia’s west coast and the flight ended there, based on satellite data from Inmarsat.

The U.S. is sending equipment that can be towed behind a ship to help locate the aircraft’s black box, which can emit pings for 30 days after becoming immersed in water. Recovery of the data and cockpit-voice recorders from the 777 would help investigators narrow in on the plane’s movements and pilots’ actions in its final hours in the air after contact was lost.

The U.S. pinger locator, which can help find the black box, is en route to Perth and will arrive today, authorities had said earlier. The Ocean Shield, which will be fitted with the device, is due to arrive in the search area on April 5.

Analysis Questioned

Passengers’ relatives gathered at Beijing’s Metropark Lido Hotel criticized the Malaysian government and military officials who delivered a PowerPoint presentation about Inmarsat’s analysis of the satellite data.

The family members questioned the speakers’ credentials and the veracity of the Inmarsat analysis, and called the presentation unconvincing. About two-thirds of the travelers on Flight 370 were Chinese.

“Is there a still a possibility our loved ones are alive?” one relative asked.

Another asked that Malaysia retract its statement that the flight had ended at sea and step up the search for the plane. They also complained about the lack of volunteers at the hotel for the relatives.

Najib today met with Zhang Yesui, the Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and special envoy, Hishammuddin said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Manirajan Ramasamy in Kuala Lumpur at rmanirajan@bloomberg.net; Angus Whitley in Sydney at awhitley1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anand Krishnamoorthy at anandk@bloomberg.net; Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net Bernard Kohn, Romaine Bostick

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