By Rob Griffith
and Gillian Wong
PERTH, AUSTRALIA: Three weeks into the mystery of Flight 370, investigators relying on newly analyzed satellite data shifted the search zone yet again, focusing on a swath of Indian Ocean where better conditions could help speed a hunt that is now concentrated thousands of miles from where it began.
Planes combing the newly targeted area off the west coast of Australia spotted several objects Friday, including two rectangular items that were blue and gray, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said. Although those are part of the colors of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet, it was not clear if they were from the plane.
The newly targeted zone is nearly 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.
“This is a credible new lead and will be thoroughly investigated,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.
The Australian maritime agency will analyze photos of the objects seen in the area, and a Chinese patrol ship will try to locate them today.
During the 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 missing Boeing 777.
New Zealand Air Vice-Marshal Kevin Short said a search plane had spotted 11 objects Friday clustered in a small area about 1,000 miles west of Perth.
One appeared to be a fishing buoy but the others were white, rectangular in shape and floating just below the surface, he said Saturday. Each was no longer than 3 feet.
“Our crew couldn’t identify anything that would say it was definitely from the Malaysian aircraft,” Short said. “I think the main issue is that those objects will have to be picked up by a ship so they can physically examine them.”
The shift to the new zone could be a break for searchers because it is a shorter flight from land and has much calmer weather than the remote stretch previously targeted.
“It is a different ballpark,” said Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at New South Wales University. “Where they are searching now is more like a subtropical ocean. It is not nearly as bad as the southern Indian Ocean, which should make the search easier.”
But in Malaysia, Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein cautioned that while the conditions had improved, they remained challenging and the area “although more focused than before, remains considerable.”
The new search area is about 80 percent smaller than the old one, but still spans about 123,000 square miles, roughly the size of New Mexico. In most places, depths range from about 6,560 feet to 13,120 feet, 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.