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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Four military search planes were dispatched Thursday to determine whether two large objects bobbing in a remote part of the Indian Ocean are debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight.
One of the objects spotted by satellite imagery was almost 80 feet in length and the other was 15 feet. There could be other objects in the area, a four-hour flight from Australia’s southwestern coast, said John Young, manager of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s emergency response division.
“This is a lead, it’s probably the best lead we have right now,” Young said. He cautioned that the objects could be seaborne debris along a shipping route where containers can fall off cargo vessels, although the larger object is longer than a container.
Young told a news conference in Canberra, Australia’s capital, that planes had been sent to the area about 1,550 miles southwest of Perth to check on the objects. He said satellite images “do not always turn out to be related to the search even if they look good, so we will hold our views on that until they are sighted close-up.”
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott earlier told Parliament about the debris, and said Orion search aircraft had been dispatched.
Young said visibility was poor and may hamper efforts to find the objects. He said they “are relatively indistinct on the imagery ... but those who are experts indicate they are credible sightings. The indication to me is of objects that are a reasonable size and probably awash with water, moving up and down over the surface.”
Military planes from Australia, the U.S. and New Zealand have been searching in a region over the southern Indian Ocean that was narrowed down from 232,000 square miles to 117,000 square miles.
Young said the depth of the ocean in the latest area, which is south from where the search had been focused since Monday, is several thousand yards. He said commercial satellites had been redirected in the hope of getting higher resolution images. He did not say when that would happen. The current images are not sharp enough to determine any markings.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority released two images of the whitish objects floating on or just under the surface. The images were taken March 16, but Australian Air Commodore John McGarry said it took time to analyze them.
“The task of analyzing imagery is quite difficult, it requires drawing down frames and going through frame by frame. The moment this imagery was discovered to reveal a possible object that might indicate a debris field, we have passed the information from defense across to AMSA for their action,” he said.
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Others said it was most likely not pieces of Flight 370. “The chances of it being debris from the airplane are probably small, and the chances of it being debris from other shipping are probably large,” said Jason Middleton, an aviation professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
The area where the debris was spotted is about halfway between Australia and desolate islands off the Antarctic.
Middleton also said the ocean to the west and south of Perth where the objects were spotted is notoriously stormy.
Selamat Bin Omar, a father of a passenger on the missing plane, said he could only wait for the results of the search and accept that fate.
“We do not yet know for sure whether this is indeed MH370 or something else,” he said. “We are still waiting for further notice from the Australian government.”
The hunt for the Boeing 777 has been punctuated by several false leads since it disappeared March 8 above the Gulf of Thailand.
Oil slicks that were spotted did not contain jet fuel. A yellow object thought to be from the plane turned out to be a piece of sea trash. Chinese satellite images showed possible plane debris, but nothing was found.
But this is the first time that possible objects have been spotted since the search area was massively expanded into two corridors, one stretching from northern Thailand into Central Asia and the other from the Strait of Malacca down to southern reaches of the Indian Ocean.
Abbott said he spoke to the prime minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, about the latest developments.
The FBI has joined forces with Malaysian authorities in analyzing deleted data on a flight simulator belonging to the pilot of the missing jet.
Files containing records of flight simulations were deleted Feb. 3 from the device found in the home of the pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu said.
It was not clear whether investigators thought that deleting the files was unusual. They might hold hints of unusual flight paths that could help explain where the missing plane went, or the files could have been deleted simply to clear memory for other material.
Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told a news conference Wednesday that Zaharie is considered innocent until proven guilty. He said members of the pilot’s family are cooperating in the investigation.
Zaharie was known to some within the online world of flight simulation enthusiasts.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in Washington that the FBI was working with Malaysian authorities. “At this point, I don’t think we have any theories,” he said.
Flight 370 disappeared March 8 on a night flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Malaysian authorities have not ruled out any possible explanation, but have said the evidence so far suggests the plane 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 possibility of hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or anyone else on board, and have asked for background checks from abroad on all foreign passengers.