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Searchers checking latest objects for link to jet

Saturday - 3/29/2014, 1:41am  ET

In this Friday, March 28, 2014 photo released by the Australian Defence, a Royal Australian Air Force C-17 Globemaster prepares to land at RAAF Pearce Base to help with the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, in Perth, Australia. Objects spotted floating in a new search area for debris from the missing Malaysian jetliner need to be recovered and inspected before they can be linked to the plane, Australian officials said Saturday. Eight planes were ready to comb the newly targeted area off the west coast of Australia after several objects were spotted Friday, including two rectangular items that were blue and gray, and ships on the scene will attempt to recover them, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said. (AP Photo/Australian Defence, Oliver Carter)

GILLIAN WONG
Associated Press

PERTH, Australia (AP) -- Objects spotted floating in a new search area for debris from the missing Malaysian jetliner need to be recovered and inspected before they can be linked to the plane, Australian officials said Saturday.

Planes from China and Australia were combing the newly targeted area off the west coast of Australia after several objects were spotted Friday, including two rectangular items that were blue and gray, and ships on the scene will attempt to recover them, the Australian Maritime Safety 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. "It is not known how much flotsam, such as from fishing activities, is ordinarily there. At least one distinctive fishing object has been identified."

Australia's Bureau of Meteorology said a cold front would bring rain, low clouds and reduced visibility over the southern part of the search area, with moderate winds and swells of up to 2 meters (6 feet). Conditions will improve Sunday, although rain, drizzle and low clouds are still likely.

Newly analyzed satellite data shifted the search zone on Friday, raising hopes searchers may be closer to getting physical evidence that Flight 370 crashed in the Indian Ocean on March 8 with 239 people aboard.

The newly targeted zone is nearly 1,130 kilometers (700 miles) northeast of sites the searchers have crisscrossed for the past week. The redeployment came after analysts determined that the jet may have been traveling faster than earlier estimates and would therefore have run out of fuel sooner, officials said.

During the earlier search, hundreds of objects have been seen in the water by satellites, but so far not a single one has been confirmed as being from the missing Boeing 777.

Search planes are being sent out from Perth, Australia, in a staggered manner, so at least one plane will be over the area for most of the daylight hours. It is also closer than the previous search area, with a flying time of 2 ½ hours each way, allowing for five hours of search time, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

The Australian statement said five P-3 Orions -- three from Australia and one each from Japan and New Zealand -- plus a Japanese coast guard jet, a Chinese Ilyushin IL-76, and one civilian jet acting as a communications relay were taking part in the air search Saturday.

But Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in Sydney that the job of locating the debris was still difficult.

"We should not underestimate the difficulty of this work -- it is an extraordinarily remote location. There are inhospitable seas, it's an inaccessible place, we are trying to find small bits of wreckage in a vast ocean," he said.

The new search area is about 80 percent smaller than the old one, but still spans about 123,000 square miles (319,000 square kilometers), roughly the size of Poland. In most places, depths range from about 6,560 feet (2,000 meters) to 13,120 feet (4,000 meters), although the much deeper Diamantina trench edges the search area.

Flight 370 disappeared March 8 while bound from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The hunt focused first on the Gulf of Thailand, along the plane's planned path. But when radar data showed it had veered sharply west, the search moved to the Andaman Sea, off the western coast of Malaysia, before pivoting to the southern Indian Ocean, southwest of Australia.

That change was based on analysis of satellite data. But officials said a reexamination and refinement of that analysis indicated the aircraft was traveling faster than previously estimated, resulting in increased fuel use and reducing the possible distance it could have flown before going down. Just as a car loses gas efficiency when driving at high speeds, a plane will get less out of a tank of fuel when it flies faster.

Malaysia's civil aviation chief, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, said personnel at Boeing Co. in Seattle had helped with the analysis.

"This is our best estimate of the area in which the aircraft is likely to have crashed into the ocean," Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said at a news conference in Canberra.

He said a wide range of scenarios went into the calculation.

"We're looking at the data from the so-called pinging of the satellite, the polling of the satellites, and that gives a distance from a satellite to the aircraft to within a reasonable approximation," he said. He said that information was coupled with various projections of aircraft performance and the plane's distance from the satellites at given times.

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