Forget all those satellite photos showing promising patches of debris. The search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has moved again.
In a stunning turn, Australian authorities announced Friday they were abandoning the remote region of Indian Ocean where search crews had spent more than a week looking for the plane. A new analysis of satellite data showed the plane could not have flown that far south, they said.
“We have moved on from those search areas,” said John Young, general manager of emergency response for the Australian maritime authority.
The new zone is 680 miles (about 1,100 kilometers) to the northeast, closer to the Australian coast.
In what could be a sign the search is on the right track, or possibly yet another letdown, the agency said five of the 10 planes dispatched to the new search zone had spotted objects in the waters below. Crews took photographs of the objects, and those images will be analyzed overnight, the authority said.
“The objects cannot be verified or discounted as being from MH370 until they are relocated and recovered by ships,” the authority said in a statement.
CNN’s Kyung Lah, who went out on a U.S. Navy P-8 search plane Friday, said the crew of that plane spotted white objects, orange rope and a blue bag.
“At one point, sure, everybody on board got a little excited, but it’s impossible to tell from that distance what anything is,” she said.
Exactly what the planes had found was unclear, but if the finds turn out to be something other than plane debris, it would not be the first time.
A Chinese aircraft reported spotting possible aircraft debris early in the search, but that sighting turned out to be nothing.
‘We have not seen any debris’
Friday’s developments cap three weeks of frequent false leads in the search for the plane, which disappeared on March 8 with 239 people aboard.
Malaysian authorities announced Monday that an analysis of satellite signals sent by the plane indicated that it must have gone down in the southern Indian Ocean. Analysts who relied on sophisticated mathematics to come to their conclusion couldn’t offer a specific impact spot, however.
The decision to move the search zone came after additional analysis indicating the plane didn’t fly as far south as previously thought, acting Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Friday.
The old area had seemed promising after repeated satellite images showed multitudes of objects floating in the water.
But Young said Australian authorities had concluded the images did not show aircraft wreckage.
“In regards to the old areas, we have not seen any debris,” he said, adding that he would not classify anything satellites or planes have spotted as debris. “That’s just not justifiable from what we have seen.”
The new zone remains vast — roughly 123,000 square miles (319,000 square kilometers). It is still also remote — 1,150 miles (1,850 kilometers) west of Perth.
But Young said conditions there are “likely to be better more often” than they were in the old search area, where poor weather has grounded flights two days this week.
Planes will be able to spend more time in the air because the new search zone is closer to land, Young said.
U.S. flight crews involved in the search aren’t frustrated or disillusioned by the sudden change in the search, said Cmdr. William Marks of the Navy’s U.S. 7th Fleet.
“For the pilots and the air crews, this is what they train for,” he said. “They understand it.”
Some analysts, however, raised their eyebrows at the sudden shift.
“Really? That much debris and we’re not going to have a look at it to see what that stuff might be?” said David Gallo of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who helped lead the search for the flight recorders from Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.
Others lamented the amount of time, money and resources that were spent in the old search area.
“This is time that has been wasted, there’s no question,” said CNN aviation analyst Miles O’Brien.
Hishammuddin disputed that suggestion.
“I don’t think we would’ve done anything different from what we have done,” he said.
CNN safety analyst David Soucie said it was “a good sign” that experts had adjusted their assumptions.
“Assumptions are the key to all of this,” he said. “If you assume something and you end up with a final conclusion, you have to constantly review that.”
Vast, evolving search
The shifting hunt for Flight 370 has spanned oceans and continents.
It started in the South China Sea between Malaysia and Vietnam, where the plane lost contact with air traffic controllers.
After authorities learned of radar data suggesting the plane had turned west across the Malay Peninsula after losing contact, they expanded the search into the Strait of Malacca.
When those efforts proved fruitless, the search spread north into the Andaman Sea and northern Indian Ocean.
It then ballooned dramatically after Malaysia announced March 15 that satellite data showed the plane could have flown along two huge arcs, one stretching northwest into the Asian landmass, the other southwest into the Indian Ocean.
The search area at that point reached nearly 3 million square miles.
On Monday, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said that further analysis of the data had led authorities to conclude the plane went down in the southern Indian Ocean, far from land.
Malaysian officials told the families of those on board that nobody would have survived. But many relatives have said that only the discovery of wreckage from the plane will convince them of the fate of their loved ones.