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Officials attempt to locate possible MH370 debris in the Indian Ocean, clouds and rain limit search visibility

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Thursday, March 20, 2014, 11:53 AM -

Officials in Australia are checking out two objects spotted in a remote part of the southern Indian Ocean that may be linked to missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

Four military search planes were dispatched Thursday to determine whether the bobbing objects are indeed linked to the missing plane.

The search for the objects could take time and Australian authorities said one of the planes was unable to locate the debris through clouds and rain, but that other planes would continue the hunt.

"Those aircraft that are flying out there -- they're the best equipment we've got. And with the U.S. Navy, the Australian Air Force and New Zealand Air Force flying out there -- they've got state of the art equipment to do the job -- the problem is, you've got to find it," said John Blaxland, Sr. Fellow Strategic & Defense Studies with Australian National University. "And let's not forget, the water -- the ocean currents will shift that flotsam and jetsam along, so where the photograph was taken on the 16th of March isn't where it is today...We don't even know if it's still there, or if it's sunk below the surface even further and is no longer detectable."


A TIMELINE OF EVENTS: Missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370


An Australia official says the largest object is 24 metres (almost 80 feet) in length and the other was 5 metres (15 feet).

Images of the objects were captured by satellite and were being assessed by the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organization.

A Malaysian official said the discovery is credible, but unconfirmed at this point.

"The Royal Australian Navy ship HMS Success is en route to the area but is some days away," said Hishammuddin Bin Hussein, Acting Minister of Transportation for Malaysia on Thursday. "The ship is well-equipped to locate any objects located and proven to be from MH370. Every effort is being made to locate the objects seen in the satellite imagery. It must be stressed that these sightings, while credible, are still to be confirmed."

If this is the debris of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, what happens next?

After days filled with dread that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 may never be found, these satellite images have sent down a ray of hope.

Australian authorities have spotted a large field of debris floating in the South Indian Ocean more than a 1,000 miles off the southwest coast of Australia.

But satellites have been wrong before about MH 370. And Australian authorities warn that their pictures, too, could end in a goose chase and disappointment.

"This is a lead," a spokesman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority cautioned. But even he could not hold back words of optimism.

"It is probably the best lead we have right now," John Young said.

The find was important and credible enough for the Australian Prime Minister to stand up before parliament and announce it.

"Two possible objects related to the search have been identified," Tony Abbott said.

If this is 'it,' the wreckage of MH 370 that departed Kuala Lumpur on March 8, what's next?

The race will be on to get to it.

Locate

The "blob," as Young called it, needs to be physically found.

The larger piece of debris leads officials to believe that it could be a chunk of the Boeing 777-200ER.

"The size and fact that there are a number located in the same area really makes it worth looking at," Young said.

Already, Australian and U.S. planes have flown over the area, and more are on their way.

The flight crew on U.S. Navy's P8 Poseidon is getting hits of "significant size" below the surface of the ocean, ABC's David Wright reported. But the network cautioned that it is still too early to tell if the radar hits are related to the missing plane.

Once Australia's pilots have found the field, they will drop a buoy to mark the spot.

It will transmit data from the spot, aviation expert Bill Waddock said. This will lead ships there. Otherwise, they wouldn't be able to see the wreckage.

The area is known for high winds, and white capped waves could obscure debris from eyeshot, Waddock said.

Eyeball

That leads to the next step.

"What we're looking for is a confirmation that it does belong to the aircraft, or it does not," Young said.

Once a ship has made it out to the wreckage, some of it will be brought back to land for inspection, he said.

That, too, could happen soon, due to a stroke of luck. A merchant ship was fortunately not far from the suspected debris spot, when its satellite images were announced, and it is pitching in on the search, Young said.

Recover

The merchant ship opens up great possibilities, said former CIA counter-terror expert Jeff Beatty.

It could act as a home base for the first salvage teams, especially if a helicopter can land on it.

U.S. teams could refuel helicopters in the air, so they could make it to the ship way off Australia's coast, and put divers into the water to look for smaller pieces of debris.

But there is a more pressing matter: Find the cockpit recorder and flight data recorder quickly.

Time could run out on that. The batteries running their locating device should still have plenty of life, but eventually they will run dry, said David Soucie, author of "Why Planes Crash: An Accident Investigator Fights for Safe Skies."

Retrieving the devices from the wreckage could also be agonizing, he said.

"The boxes aren't huge, but you still have to sift through a lot of debris. It's mangled; it's wrapped; it's twisted."

The part of the aircraft that the devices are in -- the tail -- may have to be disassembled.

Analyze

The insights the recorders can offer are potentially enormous. They could be invaluable to investigators analyzing pieces of the wreckage.

The flight data recorder collects information for the first 25 hours of flight and hold about 17,000 pieces of information, Soucie said.

And then there are the cockpit recordings.

A technical detail may prevent them from telling the world what went wrong with MH 370. The first hours will have been automatically deleted, if the device was functioning properly.

It only records for two hours, then it resets and re-records from the top over the previous two hours' recording, Soucie said.

"But the last two hours of what happened before this aircraft impacted could be really important to determine whether or not there was foul play," he said.

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