Australia has sent four aircraft and a navy ship to scour an area in the southern Indian Ocean to determine whether two large floating objects spotted by satellite are pieces of wreckage from a Malaysian jet missing for nearly two weeks.
No wreckage from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has been found since it disappeared on March 8, sparking one of the largest search efforts in aviation history and raising a series of questions as to what happened to the plane carrying 239 people.
Satellite imagery analyzed by experts discovered two objects of a "reasonable size" bobbing up and down in the southern Indian Ocean, John Young, Australia's Maritime Safety Authority's (AMSA) emergency response general manager, said at a press conference. The objects were spotted about 2,500 kilometres southwest of Perth.
The largest object appears to be about 24 metres, he said — with the second object being smaller. A number of smaller images appear to be scattered around the large object, he said.
"This is a lead. It is probably the best lead we have right now. But we need to get there, find them, see them, assess them to know whether it’s really meaningful or not," he said, but warned that the objects may turn out to be a false lead.
A Royal Australian Air Force Orion aircraft arrived in the area about 1:50 p.m. local time. Poor visibility in the area has been reported. CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe says that may be the case for the next several hours. This could hamper the search efforts with only a limited number of daylight hours remaining before the night.
Another three aircraft have been dispatched and are expected to arrive later Thursday.
Two ships are also on their way to the search area. A merchant ship, which responded to a rescue co-ordination centre call, is expected to arrive around 6 p.m., while a Royal Australian Navy ship, which is well-equipped for recovering objects, is still days away from the area.
"The most likely scenario is that an aircraft will find an object, if it is findable, and then report back an accurate GPS position," Young said. "And AMSA would task the ship to proceed to the area and attempt to see it.
"That would be our first chance to get a close up look of whatever the objects might be and progressively advance the identification of whether they’re associated with the search or not."
The families of the passengers and crew on board the missing flight appear to be holding out hope that this will either fail to be wreckage or survivors will be found, said CBC's Andrew Lee from a hotel where many of the families are staying.
Lee said he spoke to one man, who was aware of the satellite imagery, who said he believes his son is still alive and won't believe otherwise unless he sees a body. The father said families have had to cope with a great deal of misinformation, making it difficult to believe this new development.
Lee said families in the hotel are on "razor-thin edge to begin with" and emotions ran high after they were briefed on the possible findings.
People rushed out of the briefing room, many with their heads down and tears on their faces, he said.
Finding floating wreckage is possible
Earlier Thursday, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott made the announcement of the discovery in parliament, calling it "new and credible information."
Abbott said he had already spoken with his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak and cautioned that the objects had yet to be identified.
"The task of locating these objects will be extremely difficult and it may turn out they are not related to the search for MH370," Abbott said.
Other experts told CBC News the objects may end up being containers that fell from cargo ships, which happens frequently in the identified search area.
A Malaysian government minister also said the objects are suspected to be part of the jet.
"I can confirm we have a new lead," Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters in Kuala Lumpur, where the investigation into the missing airliner is based.
Gordon Dupon, a former Transportation Safety Board investigator, told CBC News he's "not surprised" to hear these developments.
Dupon said he always suspected investigators would find the plane.
"It's possible that they may find even the vertical fin floating, and that stuff will float because it's full of air," he said, recalling a crashed Air France flight in 2009 from which wreckage was found.
Roger Maynard, a freelance reporter in Sydney, told CBC News that this is an "important development."
Maynard said that Australia has been tasked with a huge search area of about 600,000 square kilometres of ocean and "these may just be specks in the ocean literally."
However, he says the prime minister's announcement is significant.
"Certainly, given that the prime minister has announced this to parliament in the past hour, then it seems that there might be a certain degree of credibility to it," he said.
Investigators believe that someone with detailed knowledge of both the Boeing 777-200ER and commercial aviation navigation switched off the plane's communications systems before diverting it thousands of miles off its scheduled course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Exhaustive background checks of the passengers and crew aboard have not yielded anything that might explain why.
The FBI is helping Malaysian authorities analyze data from a flight simulator belonging to the captain of the missing plane, after initial examination showed some data logs had been deleted early last month.
An unprecedented multinational search for the plane has focused on two vast search corridors: one arcing north overland from Laos towards the Caspian Sea, the other curving south across the Indian Ocean from west of Indonesia's Sumatra island to west of Australia.
Australia is leading the search in the southern part of the southern corridor, with assistance from the U.S. Navy.