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Washington/Sydney: French satellite scans provided fresh indications of objects adrift in part of the Indian Ocean that’s being scoured for the missing plane—Malaysia Airlines MH370—backing up Chinese evidence, as more planes and ships joined the hunt.

Eight aircraft searched 59,000sq.km of sea after China on Saturday revealed a satellite photo depicting a floating object 22.5mt (74 feet) long. Radar images from French authorities show potential objects in the vicinity, Malaysia’s transport ministry said on Sunday.

The developments rekindled prospects for breakthrough in the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 after radar and visual scans failed to find objects spotted in earlier images taken from space. Searchers, bolstered by a growing fleet of international vessels, also want to locate a wooden pallet seen from the air to check if it could have come from the jet’s hold.

“The aircraft are operating at extreme ranges," said Australian Maritime Safety Authority official Mike Barton, “with the closest airfield 2,500km away". “They’re operating at the limits of their endurance and only having a short period of 1-2 hours in the search area."

The Chinese photo, taken 18 March, is focused 90 degrees east and almost 45 degrees south, versus almost 91 degrees east and 44 degrees south for similar items on a 16 March satellite image, putting the object 120km southwest of that sighting, according to China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense.

Coloured straps

The dimensions appear similar to those of the larger of two objects seen previously, said to be 24mt long. The Malaysian plane, a The Boeing Co. 777-200, measures 63mt, with a wingspan of 61mt and a 6.2mt cabin diameter.

“French satellite images were received this morning and have been sent to the Australian centre leading the search in the southern Indian Ocean," a Malaysian government statement said.

The French foreign affairs ministry said radar echoes had detected floating debris 2,300km from Perth and that extra satellites would be mobilized to pursue the search. No date or coordinates for the discovery were immediately provided.

“Separately, the wooden pallet spotted on Saturday from a civil search aircraft was among a number of small objects spread over 5km and could be of the kind used in planes," the AMSA’s Barton told reporters on Sunday, adding that there appeared to be evidence of multi-coloured strapping belts around it. “The use of wooden pallets is quite common in the industry," Barton said. “They’re usually packed into another container which is loaded in the belly of the aircraft."

Ships converge

A New Zealand P3 Orion surveillance plane dispatched to the scene on Saturday found only clumps of seaweed. “The more aircraft we have, the more ships we have, the more confident we are of recovering whatever material is down there," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Sunday in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, according to a transcript. “Obviously before we can be too specific about what it might be, we do actually need to recover some of this material."

As more potential debris is spotted, a growing fleet of vessels is converging on the area, while the number of planes deployed was increased to eight from six on Sunday, including four long-range civil aircraft and a US Navy P8 Poseidon.

HMAS Success from the Royal Australian Navy has joined the search, while the Ocean Shield, equipped with a sub-sea remotely operated vehicle, is on its way to the zone, as is HMS Echo, a specialist ship from Britain’s Royal Navy that’s fitted with underwater listening gear and devices to survey the seabed.

Sea fog

“The US was asked by Malaysia to provide similar search technology," the US defence department said in a statement. Australia said two merchant vessels assisted in the hunt on Saturday, while China deployed at least seven ships, according to the Xinhua News Agency, a flotilla that reflects the urgency it attaches to finding Flight MH370, whose complement of 239 passengers and crew included more than 150 Chinese nationals.

“Sea fog hampered the search early on Sunday before conditions improved, though there were no sightings of significance before nightfall," the AMAS said.

“Two Chinese Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft will join the hunt from Perth tomorrow and two Japanese P3 Orions left for the West Australian city today," the Malaysian govt said.

“Two Indian military planes are also headed to the northern part of the zone. A US Orion plane is operating out of Malaysia and is scanning south of Indonesia in the vicinity of the Cocos Islands," Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an e-mail. “The plane had previously been searching for debris in the Bay of Bengal."

FBI role

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also joined the probe as Malaysian authorities seek data from a home computer flight simulator belonging to the jet’s captain.

The FBI has received digital media from Malaysian authorities, including information from the simulator’s hard drive, and technicians are examining the data in Virginia, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the case who asked not to be named because the probe is ongoing.

“Investigators are trying to learn more about what the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, did on the simulator, and part of that effort involves trying to examine files that may have been deleted from the drive," the official said.

FBI agent Michael Kortan, a spokesman for the bureau, declined to comment. “The simulator hasn’t produced any clear lead yet for investigators," Malaysia’s acting transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein said on Saturday.

“Neither have authorities found any link between the aircraft’s cargo, which included lithium batteries, and its disappearance," Hishammuddin said. “My biggest concern is that if we are not able to identify the debris, having to go back to the two corridors is a huge and massive area," he said. “This is unprecedented."

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has said that the jet emitted pulse-like signals to a satellite about seven hours after last making voice contact, shifting the focus of the search to two arcs, one extending north to Kazakhstan and the other into the southern Indian Ocean. “In the northern zone, there have been no indications of the missing airplane on radar in China, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Laos, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan," Hishammuddin said.

Tropical cyclone

“Already facing strong currents and rough seas, the Indian Ocean search could be disrupted by Severe Tropical Cyclone Gillian," Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, head of Malaysia’s civil aviation authority, told reporters near Kuala Lumpur airport. The storm is about 2,500km northwest of Perth, having passed over Christmas Island, and tracking slowly south.

Steady flight

An analysis of satellite pings shows that the Malaysian Airline System BHD 777 may have flown steadily across the ocean after diverting from its scheduled route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. That assessment gave the clearest idea yet on how investigators pinpointed a search zone.

Engineers at Inmarsat PLC, whose satellite picked up the pings, plotted seven positions for the jet on 8 March, Chris McLaughlin, a company spokesman, said in an interview. “The plane flew steadily away from the satellite over the equator while pinging," McLaughlin said. The data helped investigators conclude that the most logical path was progressively either north or south, with the bulk of search efforts focused on the south.

“I hope that we’ll find the time soon when we’re able to conclusively say once and for all that we are close to finding where this plane may now be located, and that there can be some kind of closure for families," Australia’s deputy prime minister Warren Truss told reporters on Sunday. “We will continue as long as there’s hope." Bloomberg

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