Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has told his parliament that searchers may have spotted, via satellite, two objects related to missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the Indian Ocean. Australian military aircraft have been sent to the area to investigate.
"New and credible information has come to light," he announced. Here's the latest:
12:41 a.m.: John Young from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) announced in his press conference that one of the assessed objects could be as large as 24 meters. The objects identified by the Australian Geospacial Intelligence Organization (AGIO) are "relatively indistinct" and expert analysis says that they are "awash with water, moving up and down out of the surface."
Four aircraft have been diverted to the area. A U.S. Navy Poseidon is on the scene now. An RAAF Hercules aircraft will drop buoys for drift modeling to understand water currents. Weather conditions are moderate and poor visibility in the area has been reported.
Here is the latest written statement from Australian Maritime Safety Authority: pic.twitter.com/yhTOnrTCji— Daniel Sutton (@danielsutton10) March 20, 2014
Update 3:05 a.m.: Here are the two images of the debris, released and annotated by AMSA (click to enlarge).
On missing #MH370, PM Abbott says AMSA has 'received information based on satellite imagery of objects possibly related to the search.'— Karen Barlow (@KJBar) March 20, 2014
PM Abbott says locating these objects will be extremely difficult "It may turn out that they aren't related to the search for flight #MH370"— Karen Barlow (@KJBar) March 20, 2014
PM Abbott described the objects possibly related to the search for #MH370 as being in the "southern Indian Ocean."— Karen Barlow (@KJBar) March 20, 2014
Update 7:37 a.m.: Malaysian officials have weighed in on the news, one saying that searchers were "hopeful but cautious," with regards to the development. "I can confirm we have a new lead,"said Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.
The images were captured by satellite roughly 1,500 miles southwest of Perth, Australia four days ago. According to Australian Air Commodore John McGarry, just figuring out whether the images were relevant took a long time:
The task of analyzing imagery is quite difficult, it requires drawing down frames and going through frame by frame. 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 [Australian Maritime Safety Authority] for their action.
And figuring out whether the objects are related to the missing flight will also be a long process. Young warned, "It's probably the best lead we have right now but we have to get there, find them, see them, assess them, to know whether it's really meaningful or not." The analysis could take a number of days, and will be especially challenging because of how deep the water is in the area where the objects were seen. Reuters explains:
The depth of the water where the possible debris has been sighted would likely make recovering the "black box" voice and data recorders that may finally unlock the mystery of what happened aboard Flight MH370 extremely challenging. University of Western Australia Professor of Oceanography Charitha Pattiaratchi said that, based on currents in the area, if the debris is from the plane it probably would have gone into the water around 180-250 miles to the west. The search area covered an ocean ridge known as Naturalist Plateau, a large sea shelf about 9,800 feet deep, Pattiaratchi said. The plateau is about 150 miles wide by 250 miles long, and the area around it is close to 16,400 feet deep.
The Boeing's black box battery stops emitting a signal after 30 days, meaning that time is running out for searchers hoping to use them as a guide to the important technology.
Investigators would be able to pick up the signals using sonar buoys within that time frame, according to one expert.
In his statement to the press, Hishammuddin added that investigators are continuing to search in the two "corridors" representing two possible flight paths of the missing plane.
Meanwhile, additional search crews are starting to arrive at the scene:
We'll continue to update this story as new information becomes available.