KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – A satellite image released by China on Saturday offers the latest sign that wreckage from a Malaysia Airlines plane lost for more than two weeks could be in a remote stretch of the southern Indian Ocean where planes and ships have been searching for three days.
China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense said on its website that a Chinese satellite took an image of an object 72 feet by 43 feet around noon Tuesday. The image location was about 75 miles south of where an Australian satellite viewed two objects two days earlier. The larger object was about as long as the one the Chinese satellite detected.
“The news that I just received is that the Chinese ambassador received a satellite image of a floating object in the southern corridor and they will be sending ships to verify,” Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters Saturday.
The latest 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.
After about a week of confusion, authorities said pings sent by the Boeing 777 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.
The discovery of the two objects by the Australian satellite led several countries to send planes and ships to a stretch of the Indian Ocean 1,550 miles southwest of Australia. One of the objects spotted in the earlier satellite imagery was described as almost 80 feet in length and the other was 15 feet. But three days of searching have produced nothing.
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.
The flights Saturday in relatively good weather also did not yield any results, and it was not immediately known if the newly released Chinese satellite image would change the search area on Sunday.
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.
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 yard per second although can sometimes move faster.
Based on the typical speed, a current could theoretically move a floating object about 107 miles in two days.
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.
Aircraft involved in the search include two ultra-long-range commercial jets and four P3 Orions, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.
But 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.
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.
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.
Thousands continue to post messages Saturday on Twitter at #PrayForMH370.
'I will stay here until they give me an answer'
BEIJING – Like other relatives of passengers of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, Wang Zheng's frustration and anger over a lack of any certain information about the fate of his loved ones continues to grow two weeks after the plane went missing.
"Biggest of all is the emotional turmoil I've been going through. I can't eat, I can't sleep. I've been dreaming of my parents every day," said the 30-year-old IT engineer from Beijing, whose father and mother, Wang Linshi and Xiong Yunming, were both aboard the flight as part of a group of Chinese artists touring Malaysia.
The plane's disappearance on its way from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 has hit China particularly hard, with 153 of the 239 people on board citizens of the People's Republic. It was the first major incident to hit Chinese travelers since they began visiting abroad in major numbers about a decade ago.
China's government responded with almost unprecedented forcefulness, deploying nearly a dozen ships and several aircraft to the search effort and assigning government officials to meet with relatives and liaison with Malaysian officials.
Relatives such as Wang have put their personal and professional lives on hold waiting for any word of the fate of their loved ones.
At a sprawling hotel complex in Beijing, the relatives rise each morning and eat breakfast – at least those who can muster the appetite – before attending a briefing on the missing plane. Then follows another long day of watching the news and waiting, before an evening briefing that inevitably offers little more information.
Amid the many theories and scant and often dubious, contradictory and disavowed findings, the relatives' patience has at times worn thin.
Following a brief meeting Saturday with Malaysia Airlines and Malaysian government officials, impatience turned to anger as relatives erupted in shouts of "We want to know what the reality is," and "Give us back our loved ones."
"The family members are extremely indignant," read a statement issued by relatives following the meeting. "We believe we have been strung along, kept in the dark and lied to by the Malaysian government."
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein called on "all parties to be understanding during this extraordinary and difficult time," and said officials would "do everything in our power" to keep the relatives informed.
"I'm psychologically prepared for the worst and I know the chances of them coming back alive are extremely small," said Nan Jinyan, sister-in-law of missing passenger Yan Ling, a 29-year-old engineer who had worked for the last four years at a company that designs equipment for heart patients.
Like many of the relatives, Nan said that her helpless feelings were worsened by being almost entirely dependent on the media for news, and that she was deeply unhappy with what she called the vague and often contradictory information coming from Malaysia Airlines.
"If they can't offer something firm, they ought to just shut up," said Nan, who is representing the family as well as Yan's 23-year-old girlfriend.
Nan said Yan traveled frequently and had not talked about the Malaysia trip with his family, who come from the eastern province of Jiangsu.
"The last time he talked to us was about half a month before this happened. He travels quite frequently on business trips anyway, so we don't chat about his business trips on the phone," Nan said.
Volunteer psychologist Paul Yin, who has worked with some of the relatives, said not knowing the fate of their loved ones was preventing them from confronting their grief.
"When there is uncertainty for several days, people go from hope to despair, and back again, making it impossible to bring final healing," Yin said.
Thursday and Friday were particularly difficult days for the relatives, about 100 of whom are staying at the sprawling Lido Hotel complex in eastern Beijing. Another two dozen flew to Kuala Lumpur, where there have also been emotional scenes at news briefings.
Word came Thursday that satellite imagery had captured debris that might be part of the lost aircraft. That night, Malaysian officials from several government departments flew to Beijing to communicate directly with the relatives.
But searches by plane and ship turned up no sign of any wreckage. The officials' presentation, meanwhile, was largely a reiteration of what the relatives already knew, without much new information.
"We're exhausted," Wang said. "Why did the plane fly so far away? Are the people still alive? Is this new piece of information reliable? This is how I feel."
Wang said he still had hope and was praying that the Australian reports that debris from the plane may have been spotted turned out to be false. He said he and other relatives had lingering suspicions about what they were being told by the Malaysian side, but were at a loss as to what to do next.
"We feel they're hiding something from us," Wang said.
The distrust of the authorities is rooted in modern China's experience with the arbitrary use of power and scorning of public opinion by the single-party communist state, social commentators say.
"China is now at a time of escalating social problems and government actions have sharpened the distrust," said Shi Shusi, an independent commentator and journalist with the official Worker's Daily newspaper.
Repeated government cover-ups in the name of preserving stability have had a corrosive effect on public trust, Shu said. That's created a mindset that is hard to reverse, despite a relatively prompt and thorough response from the government, he said.
"Once the government lies, it's difficult to restore public belief," Shu said.
Wang said he last spoke with his parents on the night of their departure, shortly before they boarded the plane. They told him they were busy filling out exit cards and would call him upon their arrival in Beijing.
"I will stay here until they give me an answer," he said. "I am not leaving until I know for certain where my parents are. I am not leaving any time before that."
Whatever the outcome, Nan said the family would not let it derail their future.
"I never imagined a disaster like this would befall our family, but life has to continue," she said.
Griffith reported from Perth, Australia. Associated Press writers Todd Pitman, Scott McDonald and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Didi Tang in Beijing contributed to this report.