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Search For Missing Plane Moves North Amid New Clues

4 minute read

Updated: 5:32 a.m. EST on Friday

The search area for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 shifted some 680 miles to the north on Friday after Australia said it had a “credible lead” on where the plane went down based on a new analysis of radar data. But even as a New Zealand military plane quickly spotted objects in the new search area that officials said could be connected to the missing flight, Australian authorities said it likely take until Saturday for ships to arrive in the area and determine if the objects are debris from the Boeing 777.

“This is the normal business of search and rescue operations—that new information comes to light, refined analyses take you to a different place,” John Young, general manager of the emergency response division the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, told reporters. “I don’t count the original work as a waste of time.”

The latest information is based on ongoing analysis of radar data from the area between the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca, before the plane carrying 239 people vanished during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8. A massive international hunt for the plane has followed in recent weeks, making for the longest disappearance in modern aviation history. Malaysian officials said earlier this week that they had determined the plane went down in the southern Indian Ocean and that no one survived, but family members of the passengers continue to press for answers and closure.

The new radar analysis, provided by the international investigation team in Malaysia, indicates the 200-ton, twin-engine jetliner was traveling faster than previously thought, burning up more fuel and cutting the possible distance traveled on its southward bearing into the Indian Ocean.

David Brewster, a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, told Reuters it was surprising that the new data analysis only emerged now. “The Malaysians have never really had to handle a search and rescue operation of this nature before so it is maybe complicated by lack of experience,” he said.

The new search area measures some 123,000 sq. miles (319,000 sq km) and is situated 1,150 miles (1,850 km) west of Perth, Australia. All six search vessels are currently relocating to this area and were set to be joined by 10 aircraft throughout the course of Friday. Although the new zone is only one-fifth of the size of the previous area, it is still huge—roughly the size of New Mexico.

Conditions for searching have improved, too. “It is a different ballpark,” Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer of New South Wales University, told the New York Times. “Where they are searching now is more like a subtropical ocean. It is not nearly as bad as the southern Indian Ocean, which should make the search easier.”

Hours of staring out over the vast expanse of featureless ocean is taking its toll on airborne investigators. “It is incredibly fatiguing work,” Flight Lt. Stephen Graham told the Associated Press. “If it’s bright and glaring obviously sunglasses help, but there’s only so much you can do.”

Australia, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, China and the U.S. are all collaborating in the hunt for MH 370, which vanished soon after taking off from Kuala Lumpur, sparking a massive search for the jet across Southeast Asia.

Investigators believe the plane carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew members went down in the southern part of the Indian Ocean and are continuing to analyze satellite imagery to pinpoint potential debris. Some 300 objects that may have come from the aircraft have been spotted by satellites, but so far none have been positively identified. Poor weather conditions in the search area have hampered air and sea efforts to closely inspect any of the objects.

“We will continue and we shall not look back,” Malaysian Defense Minister and acting Transport Minister Hishamuddin Hussein told a press briefing on Friday afternoon.

Anger at the Malaysian authorities’ handling of the disaster has been widespread, especially from relatives of the 153 Chinese nationals on board. Some of China’s largest travel agencies have banned sales of Malaysia Airlines’ tickets in response.

Conversely, a backlash against this criticism is now stirring across social media in Malaysia. Netizens are furious at perceived hypocrisy from Beijing officials demanding greater transparency in light of myriad official cover-ups of accidents and atrocities in the Middle Kingdom, including the Kunming Railway Station massacre earlier this month.

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Write to Charlie Campbell at charlie.campbell@time.com