Underwater scanners that will be used to try to locate the black box flight recorders from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 have arrived at the search headquarters in Australia, as crews pin their hopes on new satellite images showing 300 pieces of possible debris in the southern Indian Ocean.
The new information came as strong winds and icy weather forced planes and ships to call off their search on Thursday of an area where officials believe the plane came down almost three weeks ago.
Australian maritime officials said several planes had reached the search zone, located about 1,550 miles (2,500 km) south-west of Perth, but had returned early without finding any of the floating debris.
Sam Cardwell, a spokesman for the Australian maritime safety authority, said the planes had stayed in the area for about two hours. "They got a bit of time in, but it was not useful because there was no visibility," he said.
The bad weather is expected to last well into Friday, raising the possibility that the hunt for hundreds of pieces of debris that could be from MH370 will not resume until the weekend.
The arrival of sensitive tracking equipment offers a glimmer of hope for a breakthrough in what has become the biggest mystery in commercial aviation history.
An Australian naval vessel ship will sweep the seabed by towing an underwater listening device deep below the surface in the hope of picking up an ultrasonic signal from one or both of the plane's black box recorders, while a small submersible drone will be used to scan the sea floor for signs of wreckage.
Thursday's search involved 11 planes and five ships in an area of the vast southern Indian Ocean where officials believe the plane ran out of fuel and crashed, killing all 239 people aboard.
They were trying to locate 122 objects captured in French satellite images on 23 March that senior Malaysian officials described as the most credible lead yet as to the jetliner's whereabouts.
Later on Thursday, Thailand said it had satellite images showing 300 floating objects floating in roughly the same area. The objects, ranging in length from two to 15 metres, were found about 125 miles from the site where the French satellite had earlier spotted more than 100 pieces of debris.
Anond Snidvongs, executive director of Thailand's space technology development agency, said the information had been passed on to Malaysia. "But we cannot – dare not – confirm they are debris from the plane," he told AFP.
Officials from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said Thursday's search had been split into two areas totalling 78,000 sq km (30,000 square miles). The operation involves planes and ships from the US, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
Locating and retrieving at least some of the floating objects could prove crucial in the absence of any physical evidence supporting the theory that MH370 ran out of fuel hours after it turned sharply off course and disappeared from air traffic controllers' screens over the South China Sea en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Search teams are hoping that the detection equipment will be able to pick up acoustic pings emitted every second from the plane's black box flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.
Each of the two recorders has a beacon, attached to the outside of the black box, which once activated by contact with water makes a sound every second.
But it is a race against time: the beacons have a battery life of 30 days, after which the pings begin to fade. Chuck Schofield of Dukane Seacom, a company that has sold the pingers to Malaysia Airlines, told Associated Press that the batteries might last an additional five days before dying.
Assuming that the plane crashed on 8 March, as Malaysian officials insist, that means the beacons aboard MH370 will begin to fade around 7 April and could go silent around 12 April.
The US navy tracking equipment – a special listening device known as a "towed pinger locator" and an underwater drone dubbed Bluefin-21 – has arrived in Perth, where the international effort is based and is being sent to the search site.
Reports said the equipment would be loaded on to the Australian navy's HMAS Ocean Shield, which will drag the locator through the water in the hope of picking up a signal.
The drone can dive to depths of about 4,500 metres, using sonar to form images of the ocean floor. Similar technology was used to locate the main wreckage from Air France flight 447 in 2011 – yet it still took searchers two years to recover the black box from the depths of the Atlantic.
The operation has been hampered by bad weather and conditions, prolonging the anguish of relatives after Malaysian officials said they had concluded that the aircraft had crashed into the sea with the loss of all on board.
Experts said search crews faced significant dangers due to frequent bad weather and the area's distance from land. "This is a really rough piece of ocean, which is going to be a terrific issue," Kerry Sieh, director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore, told Associated Press. "I worry that people carrying out the rescue mission are going to get into trouble."
Criticism of the Malaysian authorities' handling of the incident has continued, with relatives of the 154 Chinese passengers on board MH370 ridiculing Malaysian government and airline officials at a meeting in Beijing on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Malaysia Airlines ran a full-page message of condolence in the New Straits Times. "Our sincerest condolences go out to the loved ones of the 239 passengers, friends and colleagues. Words alone cannot express our enormous sorrow and pain," it said.
Chinese insurance companies have started paying compensation to the families of passengers, according to Xinhua.
Several Chinese celebrities took to social media to voice anger at the Malaysian government. In a widely shared post on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, the singer and actor Chen Kun said he would boycott Malaysian goods, while the Hong Kong-born actor Deric Wan called for evidence that the plane had crashed.
"What Chinese people wanted was the truth of the missing plane instead of a pointless press conference," he said on Weibo, according to China Daily.
But in an opinion piece in Thursday's Global Times, Wang Wenwen said that while Malaysia had handled the crash aftermath ineptly, raw emotion should not be allowed to determine relations between the Chinese and Malaysian governments. "It is too early to let public opinion lead the way at the current stage. Whether Beijing-Kuala Lumpur relations will dim depends to some extent on how the [Chinese] government will act between diplomatic manoeuvering and public opinion."
The New Zealand family of Paul Weeks, one of the passengers, added their voice to criticism of the Malaysian authorities. "The whole situation has been handled appallingly, incredibly insensitively," Sara Weeks, the missing man's sister, told Radio Live in New Zealand.
"Everyone is angry about it. "The Malaysian government, the airline – it's just all been incredibly poor. Who's to say they couldn't have located the plane the day that it happened?" - The Guardian
Don't let extreme feelings preempt MH370 findings
A ground crew member directs a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion upon its returns to RAAF base Pearce from searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 over the southern Indian Ocean on Wednesday. Photo: AFP
Monday was a dramatic day for the Chinese relatives of those aboard the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 that disappeared over two weeks ago.
After the Malaysian side announced that the airliner had "ended in the southern Indian Ocean" and none of the passengers survived, relatives of the 154 Chinese citizens on board became furious. They released a statement accusing the Malaysian government of being "murderers" and protested outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing the next day.
These families have the support of the Chinese people, notably with doubts over the information released by the Malaysian side and criticism against the Malaysian government on China's social media.
When Victor Wong, a Chinese-Malaysian singer well known among the Chinese public, expressed his condolences to the relatives of the victims on his Sina Weibo account, a flurry of comments followed, blaming him for being hypocritical and calling for a boycott of his performances in China.
Many also urged the Chinese government to take a tough stance toward Malaysia, which is thought by many to have mishandled the search for the missing plane.
This mysterious accident is being followed by the world, as are China's reactions. In the eyes of some Western observers, China is "doing its best to foster a sense of aggrievement" and "exploiting international incidents for domestic gain."
Indeed, Malaysia should take most of the blame as it dragged this painful accident on for too long. Its approach in handling the aftermath of the tragedy raised doubts from international watchers. The grievances of the Chinese people didn't come from nowhere.
There have already been analyses in the foreign media speculating on a strained relationship between China and Malaysia, despite the fact that Malaysia was the first ASEAN country to establish diplomatic ties with China in 1974 and that Malaysia is China's largest trading partner among ASEAN countries.
China's tourist agencies have reported a sharp decline in the number of Chinese travelers choosing to visit Malaysia.
The past few years have seen the Chinese government facing increasing pressure from the public in making diplomatic decisions. There is a worrying sign that the public mood might be fanned by some opinion leaders at the price of ruining good people-to-people relationship between the two countries.
It is too early to let public opinion lead the way at the current stage. Whether Beijing-Kuala Lumpur relations will dim depends to some extent on how the government will act between diplomatic maneuvering and public opinion. - Global Times
Read more in Special Coverage:
- Flight MH370 ended in southern Indian Ocean! All 239 lives lost, British Inmarsat & AAIB cited, no evidence