KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The search for a missing Malaysia Airlines flight intensified Thursday in the remote waters of the southern Indian Ocean after a Colorado company discovered that its satellite had captured images of two whitish objects floating in the ocean.
The photos of what officials say may be airplane debris surfaced when DigitalGlobe reviewed grainy images that its commercial satellite had collected in the days after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared. That heightened scrutiny came after the United Nations called on an international consortium of space agencies and satellite companies to scan the oceans for clues to the whereabouts of the missing Boeing 777.
More than a dozen ships and aircraft have been dispatched to an area about 1,500 miles southwest of Perth, Australia. A Norwegian cargo vessel that was already in the vicinity arrived at the location and used its searchlights to scan the waters before dawn. Four military airplanes, including a U.S. surveillance aircraft, also searched the area amid poor visibility and were to resume their hunt at daybreak Friday.
The search has not yielded any other possible signs of the downed airplane, which vanished March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew members on board. Locating those pieces in the 230,000-square-mile search area will be challenging, and if they are parts of the plane, finding the rest of it may be even more difficult.
“If they are plane parts, they are probably several hundred miles away by now from the impact site,” said Robert Benzon, who spent 27 years as a National Transportation Safety Board lead crash investigator. “Trying to trace back the currents to a specific location after all this time is going to be very, very difficult.”
The images taken by DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-2 satellite were taken Sunday. They show one object that is about 80 feet long and another one that measures 15 feet.
The satellite collects images that go beyond what the human eye can see from space, and the company sells them commercially and under contract with government agencies.
WorldView-2 was launched in 2009 on a polar orbit. As the satellite goes around the planet, pole to pole, every 100 minutes, the planet turns beneath it. Over the course of a day, the spacecraft will pass over most of the Earth’s surface.
“The search area expanded to the southern Indian Ocean region and waters near Australia only in the last few days, at which time the Australian government started combing through imagery of this extremely large area,” DigitalGlobe said in a statement. “No conclusions have been reached about the origins of the debris or objects shown in the imagery.”
The company said it took four days to comb through all the data before information could be released by the Australians. DigitalGlobe said its five satellites capture more than 1.1 million square miles of Earth images every day, too much material to review in real time without clues of where to look.
To help find Flight MH370, the United Nations activated the international consortium. The Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response, known as UN-SPIDER, is a collection of space agencies and commercial satellite companies, including the one that spotted the objects off the coast of Australia.
Normally, UN-SPIDER is activated after floods, earthquakes, volcano eruptions and other natural disasters. This is the first time since UN-SPIDER was formed that its members have been mobilized to find a missing airplane, according to the UN-SPIDER Web site.
Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the images need to be assessed by experts. Australian Air Commodore John McGarry said further information is being continuously collected as other satellites pass over the area.
“The task of analyzing imagery is quite difficult; it requires drawing down frames and going through frame by frame,” McGarry said. “The moment this imagery was discovered to reveal a possible object that might indicate a debris field, we have passed [on] the information” for action by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
Malaysian investigators have said it is likely that the plane was deliberately steered off its course by somebody, which has led to scrutiny of the plane’s pilot and co-pilot.
The southern Indian Ocean would be a bewildering destination for a hijacker. It also seemed an unlikely destination for a pilot bent on suicide, as others have suggested.
But the suspicion that the plane flew into that remote area of the ocean renewed the possibility that it was operating on autopilot after the crew and passengers were incapacitated by a system failure, a fire or a hijacking gone awry, U.S. experts said. They said it is possible that the plane continued on autopilot for hours with its crew and passengers no longer alive.
Benzon, who has investigated crashes in Borneo, Afghanistan, Honduras, China, Russia and Scotland, said a fire or depressurization might explain the plane’s abrupt deviation from its scheduled route toward Beijing.
“It seems like most of the world thinks that there’s something nefarious going on, and in the end it could very well be,” Benzon said, “but I haven’t heard a lot of conversation about a bona fide in-flight emergency that might have partially incapacitated the crew, and then the crew initiates this grand turn to the left to try to get back to land.”
Benzon, who has had a hand in every major crash investigation worldwide for more than two decades, pointed to two instances that he investigated in which planes that experienced depressurization flew until they ran out of fuel and then crashed.
In 1999, professional golfer Payne Stewart took off from Florida aboard a Learjet bound for Dallas. When the crew failed to respond to radio calls, Air Force fighter jets went up to meet it and reported that the windshield was frosted, a sign of depressurization. The plane later ran out of fuel and crashed in South Dakota.
Almost six years later, 121 people on a Cypriot airliner operated by Helios Airways suffered the same fate.
“The crew was trying to trouble-shoot a known pressurization problem, and everybody passed out,” Benzon said. “The airplane went on its way on autopilot, ran out of gas and crashed outside of Athens.”
Investigators say that shortly after the Malaysia Airlines flight signed off with ground control, the plane soared to 45,000 feet, then swooped down and continued to fly for seven hours. If depressurization occurred at 45,000 feet, the cockpit crew or any hijackers would have three to five seconds to put oxygen masks on before they became incapacitated.
Ron Carr, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida who was an Air Force and airline pilot for 39 years, said it is possible that once taken off the Beijing course, the airplane flew to a designated waypoint and, absent further instruction, may have continued onward.
“Probably at that point it would fly the last heading that it was on,” he said.
Benzon said the Helios flight had a pre-programmed flight plan that was activated when the crew members and passengers lost consciousness.
“So it climbed, it turned, it leveled off, and got to the last point on the flight plan,” he said. “Not knowing what to do next, it entered an orbit at its last waypoint and [circled until it] ran out of gas.”
Benzon said he had scrutinized the satellite images that officials say may show debris from Flight MH370.
“They’re not very clear, but it seems to me that anything as large as they claim these two dots are has to be part of a wing,” he said.
The tail of a Boeing 777-200 is 60 feet high; the plane is 209 feet long; and the wing span is 199 feet.
“The indication to me is of objects that are a reasonable size and probably awash with water, bobbing up and down on the surface,” John Young, general manager of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, said at a news conference in Canberra.
William Wan in Beijing and Scott Higham, Joel Achenbach, Julie Tate and Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.