Search and rescue teams have been scouring a remote location four hours from the Australian coast after a satellite spotted two objects that could possibly be linked to missing Flight MH370.
One of the pieces of suspected debris could be as long as 24 metres, but little else is likely to be revealed soon after growing darkness forced officials to call off the search for today.
Earlier John Young, of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), said: “This is a lead. Probably the best lead we have right now. But we need to get there, find them, see them.”
He said a number of ships and planes had been sent to the location, where the water is said to be thousands of feet deep. But he also warned that nothing could be assumed: the spot where the objects were seen was located 1,600 miles south-west from city of Perth and finding anything would be a major challenge. Poor weather was not helping the issue.
Indeed, an insight of just how difficult the weather might be, officials said last night the first plane dispatched – a P3 Orion – had been unable to locate the debris and that cloud and rain had limited its visibility. Given the four-hour journey each way, the planes are limited to a search at the suspected location of just two hours.
Mr Young also reminded anyone desperate for a piece of information 14 days after the Malaysian Airlines plane and its 239 passengers and crew went missing, that the objects might not be related. “We have been in this business of doing search and rescue and using sat images before and they do not always turn out to be related to the search even if they look good, so we will hold our views on that until they are sited close-up,” he said.
The point was reinforced by Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott, when he announced in parliament “new and credible” information had come to light. A number of sightings of possible debris have previously been investigated in the search for the plane but so far none of them have proved to be linked.
“The task to locate these objects will be extremely difficult and they may not turn out to be linked to the search for Flight 370,” said Mr Abbott, who later spoke with his Malaysian counterpart, Najib Razak.
Officials said the objects had been spotted on satellite imagery and that an assessment completed on Thursday by the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation suggested they could be pieces of debris. They were spotted in the area where Australians have been searching in the last two days.
In addition to the Australian assets that were dispatched today, officials said that planes from New Zealand and the US were on their way to the area to help.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it lost contact with air traffic controllers. Twenty-six nations have been involved in a major search for the missing plane, which Malaysia says was intentionally diverted.
Malaysia’s Transport Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said Mr Abbott had spoken with Mr Najib on Thursday morning and informed him about the objects that had been spotted. “Every effort is being made to locate the objects seen in the satellite imagery. It must be stressed that these sightings, while credible, are still to be confirmed,” he said.
Officials in Australia said a number of aircraft had been sent to the location, four hours flying time from Perth. A Royal Australian Air Force Orion aircraft arrived in the area about 1.50pm local time.
A Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion, a US Navy P8 Poseidon aircraft and another Australian Orion were due to arrive later. A Hercules C130 had been dispatched to drop marker buoys to assist in drift modelling. “They will provide an ongoing reference point if the task of relocating the objects becomes protracted,” said a statement by the AMSA.
In the past two weeks, investigators in Malaysia, assisted by foreign intelligence agencies, have been scrutinising the backgrounds of both the crew and the passengers on the missing jet, but have so far identified no evidence of terror or other potentially relevant links.
Investigators had identified two corridors of territory - one to the north and one to the south - spanning the possible positions of the plane more than seven hours after it took off for Beijing. Earlier this week, Australia was asked by Malaysia to take responsibility for the “southern corridor” search.
The plane lost contact with controllers over the South China Sea as it crossed from Malaysian to Vietnamese air space. Malaysian officials say it then turned west and its last position - according to Malaysian military radar - was over the Malacca Straits, in the opposite direction to its planned flight path.
The FBI has been called in to assist in trying to recover data deleted from the flight simulator owned by the plane’s chief pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah.
Mr Hishammuddin, the transport Minister, said earlier this week that the the captain of the plane should be considered innocent until proved otherwise and said that members of his family were co-operating with the investigation.
Royal Navy ship sent to help search
Britain has tasked survey vessel HMS Echo to help with the operation - but it will not arrive for several days.
Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman said the Government stood ready to provide any other assistance requested.
"The exact role (HMS Echo) will play will depend on the status and the nature of the investigation by the time it arrives in that area," he said.
"That is currently the assistance that's being provided, but we stay in close touch with the Malaysian authorities and if there's more to do that the British Government can do then we will, of course, look upon that very constructively."
HMS Echo is a multi-role survey ship commissioned by the Royal Navy to carry out a wide range of work.
Built in 2002 in Devon, it can provide support to submarine and amphibious operations by collecting ocean data and has a range of 9,000 nautical miles.
It is equipped with a survey motor boat, called Sapphire, which is capable of operating independently and supporting a small group of surveyors who can live and work ashore to carry out surveys.
The ship can support mine warfare, possesses an array of weapons and carries a small detachment of Royal Marines.
It has previously been deployed to the Red Sea, the Gulf, the Indian Ocean, the Middle and Far East.
Confusion in search for MH370: A timeline
Uncertainty and frustration has clouded the mystery over the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.
A series of false leads has added to wide-ranging speculation that pilot error, plane malfunction, hijacking or terrorism may have been the cause.
March 8 - Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 takes off from Kuala Lumpur at 12.41am local time bound for Beijing carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew.
Someone, apparently the co-pilot, makes the final voice communication from the cockpit at 01.19am, saying "All right, good night" to air traffic controllers.
The plane is last seen on military radar at 02.14am heading west over the Strait of Malacca. Half an hour later the airline reveals to the public it has lost contact with the plane. The plane was due to land around 6.30am.
Officials reveal two passports used to board the flight were stolen, raising the first suspicions of terrorist involvement.
March 9 - Malaysia's air force chief says that military radar indicated the missing Boeing 777 jet may have turned back.
March 10 - Vietnamese aircraft search for a plane door spotted in their waters but find nothing.
March 11 - The hunt is widened to cover a 115-nautical mile radius involving 34 aircraft and 40 ships from several countries.
The Malaysian military claims it has radar evidence showing that the missing plane changed course and made it to the Malacca Strait which is hundreds of miles away from the last location reported by civilian authorities. The aircraft was believed to be flying low.
The two male passengers travelling with stolen passports were Iranians who had bought tickets to Europe and were probably not terrorists, Malaysian police said.
March 12 - Satellite images on a Chinese government website shows suspected debris from the missing plane floating off the southern tip of Vietnam, China's Xinhua News Agency says.
The report includes co-ordinates of a location in the sea off the southern tip of Vietnam and east of Malaysia, near the plane's original flight path.
March 13 - Malaysian authorities expand their search for the missing jet into the Andaman Sea and beyond after acknowledging it could have flown for several more hours after its last contact with the ground.
Nothing was found when planes were sent to search an area off southern Vietnam identified by Chinese satellite images. The Chinese Embassy notifies the Malaysian government that the images were released by mistake and did not show any debris from the missing flight.
March 15 - Prime Minister Najib Razak's says the missing airliner was deliberately diverted and continued flying for more than six hours after losing contact with the ground. The plane could have gone as far north west as Kazakhstan or into the Indian Ocean's southern reaches.
Malaysian police have already said they are looking at the psychological state, family life and connections of pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27. Both have been described as respectable, community-minded men.
March 16 - The search area now includes 11 countries the plane might have flown over. The number of countries involved in the operation had increased from 14 to 25.
Malaysian defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein said he had asked governments to hand over sensitive radar and satellite data to try to help get a better idea of the plane's final movements.
March 17 - Officials release a new timeline suggesting the final voice transmission from the cockpit of the missing Malaysian plane may have occurred before any of its communications systems were disabled.
Investigators have not ruled out hijacking, sabotage, or pilot suicide, and they are checking the backgrounds of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members, as well as the ground crew, to see if links to terrorists, personal problems or psychological issues could be factors.
March 18 - Ten days after a Malaysian jetliner disappeared, Thailand's military said it saw radar blips that might have been from the missing plane but did not report it "because we did not pay attention to it".
March 19 - Distressed relatives of the missing passengers threaten to go on hunger strike over the lack of information about the investigation.
March 20 - Two objects which could be connected to the missing jet are detected in the southern India Ocean, the Australian prime minister Tony Abbott said.