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March 28th, 2014
06:17 AM ET

Australia: New Search Area for Flight 370 is 'Most Credible Lead'

Nearly three weeks after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the focus of the hunt for the missing passenger jet has moved yet again.

Search teams have shifted to a different part of the southern Indian Ocean after Australian authorities said they received "a new credible lead" about the jetliner's most likely last movements.

An analysis of radar data led investigators to move the search to an area 1,100 kilometers (680 miles) to the northeast of where efforts had been focused previously, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said Friday.

It described the new information, which indicated the errant jetliner didn't fly as far south as previously thought, as "the most credible lead to where debris may be located."

That means the huge, isolated areas of the ocean that ships and planes had combed for more than a week - and where various satellites detected objects that might be debris from the missing plane - are no longer of interest.

"We have moved on from those search areas," said John Young, general manager of emergency response for the Australian maritime authority.

The new search area is "considerable" and conditions there "remain challenging," acting Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters Friday.

The sudden change of geographic focus is the latest twist in an investigation that has so far failed to establish why Flight 370 flew dramatically off course or exactly where the plane and the 239 people it was carrying ended up.

"To me, it's not a game changer, it's a reset," David Gallo of theWoods Hole Oceanographic Institution said of the shifted search.

'We have not seen any debris'

Australian officials also played down the significance of hundreds of possible objects detected by satellites in the previous search region, some of which had been described by authorities as important leads.

"In regards to the old areas, we have not seen any debris," Young said at a news briefing in Canberra, the Australian capital. "And I would not wish to classify any of the satellite imagery as debris, nor would I want to classify any of the few visual sightings that we made as debris. That's just not justifiable from what we have seen."

Officials had repeatedly cautioned that the objects seen in the satellite imagery could just be flotsam that had fallen off cargo ships.

But Hishammuddin said the new search area "could still be consistent" with the idea that materials spotted in recent satellite photos over the previous search area are connected to the plane. The materials could have drifted in ocean currents, he said.

Some analysts raised their eyebrows at the search coordinators' readiness to move away from the satellite sightings.

"Really? That much debris and we're not going to have a look at it to see what that stuff might be?" said Gallo, who helped lead the search for the flight recorders of Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.

Others lamented the amount of time, money and resources that were spent sending planes and ships out to the now discounted areas for more than a week.

"This is time that has been wasted, there's no question," said CNN aviation analyst Miles O'Brien.

But Young disputed that suggestion, saying the previous searches were based on the information authorities "had at the time."

"That's nothing unusual for search and rescue operations," he said "And this actually happens to us all the time - that new information may arise out of sequence with the search itself."

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