Debris including a wooden pallet has been spotted by one of the aircraft searching for missing flight MH370, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has revealed.
Mr Abbott said he was told late last night a civilian aircraft had sighted a number of objects within the search zone.
It is the first direct sighting of debris and follows two hits by satellite in the past week.
“Yesterday one of our civilian search aircraft got visuals on a number of objects in a fairly small area in the overall Australian search zone,” Mr Abbott said this morning.
He said the debris was: “ A number of small objects, fairly close together within the Australian search zone, including a wooden pallet.”
His revelation gives further hope that authorities might be closing in on the fate of missing Malaysian aircraft MH370.
Speaking in the PNG capital Port Moresby as he prepared to fly back to Australia, Mr Abbott said the sighting was one of three significant developments in the past 24 hours.
Australia will resume its search today, after a new Chinese satellite image also revealed a large floating object deep in the southern Indian Ocean.
The grainy photo, which was taken on March 18 – two days after the first images were captured by commercial satellites and released by the State Administration of Science Technology and Industry – shows an object 22.5 metres by 13 metres floating in the ocean.
Malaysia’s Defence and acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein made the announcement as “breaking news” midway through a press conference in Kuala Lumpur last night.
After being handed a note with the notes of a telephone conversation on it, Mr Hussein told the media that the Chinese had a “satellite image of floating objects in the southern corridor”.
Ships were now on the way to the location, he said.
“We owe it to the almost 240 people on board the plane. We owe it to their grieving families. We owe it to the governments of the countries concerned to do everything we can to discover as much as we can about the fate of MH370,” he said.
“Obviously the more aircraft we have, the more ships we have – and HMAS success is in the search area now – the more confident we are of recovering whatever material is down there “It’s still too early to be definite by obviously we have now had a number of very credible leads and there is increasing hope – no more than hope – that we might be on the road to discovering what did happen to this ill-fated aircraft.”
COULD SATELLITE IMAGES BE POINTING TO MH370 WRECKAGE?
There is a “high likelihood” that the images are the wreckage of MH370, aviation expert Neil Hansford said.
The new find appeared to back up Australia’s efforts to focus the search at the location of the previous sighting, 2300km south west of Perth, he said.
AVIATION EXPERT: ‘HIGH LIKELIHOOD’ IMAGES ARE MH370
“If that was taken later than the first images, it suggests it validates what they saw.”
Other aviation experts concur, saying it is the best lead we have in the search for the missing aircraft.
Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said the currents in the area typically move at about one metre per second but can sometimes move faster.
Based on the typical speed, a current could theoretically move a floating object about 173 kilometres in two days, making it harder for vessels to reach the objects detected via the satellites.
News of the new Chinese satellite image comes days after Australian satellite images also picked up what appeared to be debris about 2300km south west of Perth.
That debris was about the same size – the largest piece was 24 metres long.
The other piece of debris was 5 metres long.
The Boeing 777-200 is about 64 metres long with a wingspan of 61 metres and a fuselage about 6.2 metres in diameter, according to Boeing’s website.
But even if both satellites detected the same object, it may be unrelated to the plane.
One possibility is that it could have fallen off a cargo vessel.
Warren Truss, Australia’s acting prime minister while Tony Abbott is abroad, said before the new satellite data was announced that a complete search could take a long time.
“It is a very remote area, but we intend to continue the search until we’re absolutely satisfied that further searching would be futile — and that day is not in sight,” he said.
“If there’s something there to be found, I’m confident that this search effort will locate it,” Truss said from the base near Perth that is serving as a staging area for search aircraft.
TROPICAL CYCLONE COULD THREATEN SEARCH
Cyclone Gillian, which has set off a cyclone warning in the Southern Corridor area has yet to hamper search and rescue operations, but could interfere.
Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) director-general Datuk Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said the cyclone was currently in the area around Christmas Island, and had yet to affect the Southern Corridor search area.
“It is not in the search and rescue area yet, but may approach it,” he said, adding it could hamper efforts there.
Acting Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said it was currently a category one cyclone, and “was not affecting the search area yet, but could grow”.
“Some vessels may have to go through the cyclone to get to the search and rescue area,” he said.
SEARCH CONTINUES, WITHOUT PLANE DEBRIS FOUND – YET
Since the Australian announcement of debris spotted, a flotilla of ships and sophisticated military aircraft have searched the area for several days with no sign of the debris. With a tropical cyclone developing conditions are expected to deteriorate.
RELATIVES FURIOUS OVER MH370 BUNGLES
The Australian Maritime and Safety Authority (AMSA), which is co-ordinating the hunt for the wreckage, wrapped up the search operation on Saturday night after experiencing good conditions with visibility of around 10km and moderate seas.
Six planes, including four Orion anti-submarine aircraft packed with state-of-the-art surveillance equipment, scoured the area for a third straight day without success.
A Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) P3 Orion aircraft with specialist electro-optic observation equipment was diverted to the location, arriving after the first aircraft left but only reported sighting clumps of seaweed.
The RNZAF Orion dropped a datum marker buoy to track the movement of the material. A merchant ship in the area has been tasked to relocate and seek to identify the material.
The Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Success has arrived in the 36,000-square-kilometre search area, where two merchant ships are also helping look for the missing plane.
The AMSA says it is too early to say if the new Chinese satellite image would alter its search patterns.
Chinese, British and Australian naval ships are already steaming to the search area and the new image will provide welcome backing for the decision to deploy so many resources without confirmation the objects are pieces of the plane.
MH370 dropped off civilian radar on March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and two weeks later Malaysian investigators still believe it was “deliberately diverted” by someone on board.
Two-thirds of the 227 passengers on board the missing flight were Chinese and anger has been growing among family members over Malaysia’s handling of the search operation.
Six Australians and two New Zealanders were also aboard the flight.
MICHELLE OBAMA: THE US IS HERE TO HELP
While on a tour of China, the First Lady Michelle Obama emphasised that the US will offer any support Malaysia needs in the search.
“As my husband has said, the United States is offering as many resources as possible to assist in the search … please know that we are keeping all of the families and loved ones of those on this flight in our thoughts and prayers at this very difficult time.”