More planes join ocean hunt for missing jetliner

Flight officer Rayan Gharazeddine on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion, searches for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in southern Indian Ocean, Australia, Saturday, March 22.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — More planes were joining the search Sunday of a remote patch of the southern Indian Ocean in hopes of finding answers to the fate of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet, after China released a satellite image showing a large object floating in the search zone.

The desolate area in the Indian Ocean is about 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth, Australia, where three days of searching for similar images from another satellite that emerged earlier in the week have produced no results.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordination the operation from the country's western coast, said it refined the search based on the latest clue from the Chinese satellite showing an object that appeared to be 22 meters (72 feet) by 13 meters (43 feet). It said that the object's position also fell within Saturday's search area but it had not been sighted.

Sunday's search involving eight aircraft has been split into two areas within the same proximity covering 59,000 square kilometers (22,800 square miles). These areas have been determined by drift modelling, the AMSA said.

Despite the frustrating lack of answers, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Sunday suggested the sightings were a positive development.

"Obviously we have now had a number of very credible leads and there is increasing hope — no more than hope, no more than hope — that we might be on the road to discovering what did happen to this ill-fated aircraft," Abbott told reporters in Papua New Guinea.

Gallery: Missing Malaysia Airlines jet

The latest satellite image is another clue in the baffling search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which dropped off air traffic control screens March 8 over the Gulf of Thailand with 239 people on board.

A relative of Chinese passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flightAP Photo: Ng Han Guan

A relative of Chinese passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 protests after Malaysian government representatives leave following a briefing in Beijing, China, on Saturday, March 22, 2014.

After about a week of confusion, Malaysian authorities said pings sent by the Boeing 777-200 for several hours after it disappeared indicated that the plane ended up in one of two huge arcs: a northern corridor stretching from Malaysia to Central Asia, or a southern corridor that stretches toward Antarctica.

Related: Relatives of jet's passengers struggle to cope

The discovery of two objects by the Australian satellite led several countries to send planes and ships to a stretch of the Indian Ocean about 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Australia. But three days of searching have produced no confirmed signs of the plane.

One of the objects spotted in the earlier satellite imagery was described as 24 meters (almost 80 feet) in length and the other was 5 meters (15 feet).

The Boeing 777-200 is about 64 meters (209 feet) long with a wingspan of 61 meters (199 feet) and a fuselage about 6.2 meters (20 feet) in diameter, according to Boeing's website.

In a statement on its website announcing China's find, the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense did not explain why it took four days to release the information. But there was a similar delay in the release of the Australian satellite images because experts needed time to examine them.

Two military planes from China arrived Saturday in Perth to join Australian, New Zealand and U.S. aircraft in the search. Japanese planes will arrive Sunday and ships were in the area or on their way.

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 meter (yard) per second but can sometimes move faster.

Based on the typical speed, a current could theoretically move a floating object about 173 kilometers (107 miles) in two days.

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.

Flight Lt. Jason Nichols on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion, looks towards HMAS Success as they search over the southern Indian Ocean for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in Southern Indian Ocean, Australia, Saturday, March 22, 2014.AP Photo: Rob Griffith

Flight Lt. Jason Nichols on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion, looks towards HMAS Success as they search over the southern Indian Ocean for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in Southern Indian Ocean, Australia, Saturday, March 22, 2014.

Aircraft involved in the search include two ultra-long-range commercial jets and four P3 Orions, the maritime safety authority said.

Related: Mystery of missing passenger jet now 2 weeks old

Because the search area is a four-hour flight from land, the Orions can search for about only two hours before they must fly back. The commercial jets can stay for five hours before heading back to the base.

Two merchant ships were in the area, and the HMAS Success, a navy supply ship, had also joined the search.

Hishammuddin, the Malaysian defense minister, said conditions in the southern corridor were challenging.

The area where the objects were identified by the Australian authorities is marked by strong currents and rough seas, and the ocean depth varies between 1,150 meters (3,770 feet) and 7,000 meters (23,000 feet). In addition, Hishammuddin said a low-level warning had been declared for Tropical Cyclone Gillian, although that was north of Australia and closer to Indonesia.

The Chinese planes that arrived in Perth on Saturday were expected to begin searching on Sunday. A small flotilla of ships from China will also join the hunt, along with a refueling vessel that will allow ships to stay in the search area for a long time, Truss said.

The missing plane, which had been bound for Beijing, carried 153 Chinese passengers. In the Chinese capital on Saturday, relatives of the passengers rose up in anger at the end of a brief meeting with Malaysia Airlines and Malaysian government officials.

"You can't leave here! We want to know what the reality is!" they shouted in frustration over what they saw as officials' refusal to answer questions. The relatives gave reporters a statement saying they believe they have been "strung along, kept in the dark and lied to by the Malaysian government."

Malaysian authorities have not ruled out any possible explanation for what happened to the jet, but have said the evidence so far suggests it was deliberately turned back across Malaysia to the Strait of Malacca, with its communications systems disabled. They are unsure what happened next.

Police are considering the possibilities of hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or anyone else on board.

Malaysia asked the U.S. for undersea surveillance equipment to help in the search, said Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel promised to assess the availability of the technology and its usefulness in the search, Kirby said. The Pentagon says it has spent $2.5 million to operate ships and aircraft in the search and has budgeted another $1.5 million for the efforts.

___

Griffith reported from Perth, Australia. Associated Press writers Todd Pitman and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Didi Tang and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.