Missing Malaysia Airlines plane: satellite images focus search on southern Indian Ocean

The Australian-led search 2500 kilometres south-west of Perth finished for the night without finding any debris from MH370, nor the objects that appeared in the satellite images revealed on Thursday.

But revelations that the US satellite images were taken on Sunday mean that the debris could already have floated scores of kilometres away from its last known location, due to the strong and unpredicatable currents in some of the roughest seas in the world.

Earlier, an international force of surveillance planes and ships converged in a remote spot in the Indian Ocean to investigate what Australian satellite experts say are "credible" images of pieces of the missing MH370 plane.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority announced just before midnight on Thursday, eastern daylight time, that four surveillance planes - from Australia, the United States and New Zealand - had covered an area of 23,000 square kilometres.

The search will resume on Friday morning.

AMSA also explained in its statement why authorities are only now acting on the images, which the Australian government has said came from a commercial satellite, though they were taken on Sunday.

"Due to the volume of imagery being searched, and the detailed process of analysis that followed, the information was brought to the attention of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority on Thursday morning," it said.

The debris in the pictures may have drifted scores of kilometres since the images were taken on Sunday.

The debris had been located about 2500 kilometres south-west of Perth, close to the Roaring Forties, a region where strong westerly winds whip up giant swells and waves, said oceanographer Chari Pattiaratchi, from the University of Western Australia.

The Roaring Forties are located 40 degrees south, where there is almost no land to slow the winds.

This creates strong, high waves and swell. The currents also extend through the water column as the region is so deep.

''So if it (the debris) has been in the water for about 10 days it would have drifted about 300 to 400 kilometres,'' Professor Pattiaratchi said.

''If it keeps going, it'll go to the south of Perth or south of Australia,'' he said.

Nearly two weeks after the Malaysian Airlines flight disappeared, Australian authorities were describing as their "best lead" the grainy satellite images of two objects in the ocean.

But senior sources urged caution late on Thursday night, as the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is co-ordinating the search, said the first Australian plane on the scene failed to find anything.

One source familiar with the operation said there was unlikely to be definitive news until Navy supply ship HMAS Success reached the scene and could take a close-up look, which meant at least 48 hours.

Four aircraft were sent on Thursday to search the area - an Australian P-3 Orion and a cutting-edge United States P-8 Poseidon. Another Australian Orion as well as an Orion from the Royal New Zealand Air Force were due to arrive later on Thursday.

AMSA tweeted late on Thursday: "RAAF P3 crew unable to locate debris. Cloud & rain limited visibility. Further aircraft to continue search."

Weather conditions are expected to improve on Friday and into the weekend, with winds easing and seas becoming calmer.

The deployment of HMAS Success from Fremantle underscored the seriousness with which the authorities are taking the satellite breakthrough.

Norwegian car carrier Höegh St Petersburg reached the search area on Thursday night, shipping company Hoeeg Autoliners said.

"The ship has arrived at the site to take part in the search," said Cecilie Moe, spokeswoman for the Norwegian company.

According to another Hooeg Autoliners spokesperson, Christian Dahll, the search window for Thursday was limited by sunset.

The HMAS Success is likely to have a better chance of hauling any large objects out of the sea.

Another source close to the operation stressed there were still many "vagaries" about the situation and said there was not yet enough evidence to have a "high level of confidence".

But he added: "It's certainly the [only] show in town and it's going to focus all of our efforts."

AMSA emergency response manager John Young said two objects, one measuring roughly 24 metres in length, had been found on images taken by a commercial satellite.

Those images had been analysed by Defence's satellite experts from the Australian Geospatial Intelligence Organisation, which deemed them "credible sightings", he said.

Former Qantas pilot Trevor Jensen told the ABC that the larger object could be a wing or a part of the tail. Fuel is kept in the wings and, if it had run out, the wing would likely float, he said.

Each wing of a Boeing 777 is about 27 metres long, though the satellite image provided by AMSA suggests an object that is broader than a plane's wing.

Mr Young also urged caution, saying: "I must emphasise that these objects may be very difficult to locate and they may not be related to the search."

Prime Minister Tony Abbott broke the news of the find in Parliament on Thursday, saying he had informed his Malaysian counterpart, Prime Minister Najib Razak, and promised to keep him updated.

Mr Young said Australian authorities were also retasking satellites to collect more images of the area, but could not give a time as to when more images would be available.

Experts have warned that even if the wreckage is found, the strong currents in the southern Indian Ocean meant that the black box could still be hard to find.

Mr Young said he understood the ocean to be "several thousand metres" deep in that area.

The black box will be critical to solving the mystery of what happened on the plane. If the objects prove to be wreckage from the MH130, it means the plane likely flew until it ran out of fuel.

Aviation expert Peter Marosszeky from UNSW said he believed the crash was a combination of foul play and an electrical fault.

"It looks there was foul play and whoever was in the cockpit couldn't get the plane to work the way they wanted it to," he said.

Mr Marosszeky said when communication was lost, all electronic signals and lights on board would have been disabled.

Senior Indonesian minister Djoko Suyanto said it was "too early to conclude that the debris belongs to the MH370 plane".

"In the early days of the search, there was also a satellite image of the South China Sea, but it turned out not to be from that plane, so we have to be careful," he told Indonesian TV.

"We cannot conclude that it's MH370 until after we carefully examine the site."

with Nicky Phillips and AFP

The story Missing Malaysia Airlines plane: satellite images focus search on southern Indian Ocean first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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