Updated 5:04 p.m. E.T.
Australian authorities said Thursday they had found "credible" evidence in satellite imagery of what may be debris from the Malaysia Airlines plane that has been missing for almost two weeks.
The debris was spotted in the Indian Ocean near Australia, and while authorities cautioned it could turn out to be another dead end, it was called the "best lead" yet in what has mushroomed into a massive international search for a 777 that vanished with 239 people aboard. Australian aircraft arrived in the area about 1,500 miles (2,400 km) southwest of the country but were unable to immediately find the objects spotted by satellite because "cloud & rain limited visibility," the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said. Other aircraft from the U.S. and New Zealand were en route to aid the search operation. Relatives of the passengers on the missing jet, who have grown increasingly anguished over the lack of answers provided by the search, gathered at a hotel in Beijing to await news. As night fell in the Indian Ocean, Australian officials said they were calling off their search for the day and would resume on Friday morning. An American Navy aircraft also combed the area but returned to Australia "with nothing of significance to report," having found no indication of debris," the New York Times reports.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Parliament earlier Thursday that the evidence was “credible,” while also cautioning that “it may turn out that they are not related to the search."
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Since then an international search has grown to encompass vast swaths of ocean and land, and with few clues, focus has recently turned to whether anyone on board — pilots, crew or passengers — may have been involved. The FBI has joined in the investigation, and it is now the longest disappearance in modern commercial aviation history.
Australia spotted two objects, one of which is 24 m, or about 80 ft., long. The objects appeared to be "awash with water and bobbing up and down," John Young, the general manager of the AMSA, said during a news conference. He called the objects “relatively indistinct on the imagery,” but said they are “credible sightings” and “probably the best lead with have right now.”
Despite the lack of hard evidence so far, analysts said the Australian Premier likely wouldn't choose to inform Parliament in person, rather than simply issuing a statement, unless there is a strong possibility that debris from the missing plane had finally been found.
"The task of analyzing imagery is quite difficult, it requires drawing down frames and going through frame by frame,” said Australian Air Commodore John McGarry. “The moment this imagery was discovered to reveal a possible object that might indicate a debris field, we have passed the information from defense across to AMSA for their action."
The task of locating the objects will be extremely difficult. Aside from poor visibility, the area is so remote that each aircraft will only have about two hours after arrival to scour the area. If found, marker buoys will be dropped to allow drift modeling and an ongoing reference point to follow.
Investigators will not be able to positively identify the debris until support arrives to the region by sea, which could take days. A merchant ship that responded to a shipping broadcast issued by RCC Australia is expected to arrive in the area by about 6 p.m. But the satellite sighting was reported some 1,429 miles (2,300 km) southwest of Perth, and the objects may have drifted farther. The area is known for debris from shipping, and officials have cautioned against jumping to conclusions. Items spotted floating in the Gulf of Thailand last week proved to be erroneous.
Michael Daniel, a retired U.S. Federal Aviation Administration official, told the Straits Times that it may take up to 48 hours to confirm that the debris belongs to the missing plane.
"If they have a strong feeling or indication that the debris belongs to the aircraft, one of the first things authorities will do is drop sonar buoys in the water,” he said. "If the black box is there, the buoys should be able to pick up the signals.”
Thursday marks 12 days since the twin-engine, 200-ton aircraft disappeared, but the black box flight recorder will only emit a signal for 30 days before its battery dies.
The southern Indian Ocean is one of the deepest in the world. Some believe the water could even present more challenges than the 12,000-ft. (3,700 m) stretch of the Atlantic where Air France Flight 447 crashed in June 2009. It took two years to find the flight recorder for that plane.
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein also urged caution. “We have been very consistent. We want to verify, we want to corroborate,” he told reporters. China's Foreign Ministry urged Australia in a statement Thursday to report back findings as soon as possible. Of the 239 people on board, 153 were Chinese nationals.
Flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport for Beijing at 7:41 a.m. on March 8 with 227 passengers and 12 crew. After passing over the east coast of Malaysia and into the Gulf of Thailand, contact was lost and the plane apparently performed a U-turn and headed back over the northern part of Malaysia.
Subsequent data communications indicate the plane may have traveled on for up to seven hours after this point, with search efforts centered on a northern corridor stretching from northern Thailand over western China toward Kazakhstan, and a southern corridor stretching from Indonesia into the southern Indian Ocean by the western coast of Australia.
Military planes from the U.S., Australia and New Zealand are currently combing 117,000 sq. mi. (303,000 sq km) of the Indian Ocean, narrowing the field from 232,000 sq. mi. (600,000 sq km) on Wednesday. The U.S. 7th Fleet is also in the vicinity, and commercial satellites have been redirected to where the latest debris has been spotted.
Meanwhile, a tense atmosphere has gripped the Lido Hotel in Beijing and Everly Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, where relatives of those who were on board are gathered. After craving any news for so long, many now dread that it may soon arrive.
"We are still waiting for verification from the authorities," Selamat Omar, the father of flight engineer Khairul Selamat, told gathered reporters in the Malaysian capital. "If it's really MH370, we will accept that fate."