MH370 search: ‘Object of interest’ found on Western Australian coast

MH370 Search Area -- April 23, 2014

(CNN) — Australian officials say an “object of interest” in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane has been found, but Malaysian authorities said it was too early to tell if it is a real lead.

Australian Transport Safety Bureau Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan described the object as appearing to be sheet metal with rivets and said it was recovered on the coast of Western Australia.

“It’s sufficiently interesting for us to take a look at the photographs,” he said. “We take all leads seriously.”

At a news conference Wednesday, Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s acting transport minister, said that his country has not received any photos from Australia and that so far, all of the objects found in the search have not been related to the missing plane.

Even the Australians expressed caution.

“The more we look at it, the less excited we get,” Dolan said.

The object was picked up near Augusta, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of Perth, a source with the Australian Defence Force told CNN.

The source also described the object as having rivets on one side with what appears to be a fiberglass coating.

When asked about the shape and scale of the object, the source described it as “kind of rectangular,” but torn and misshapen.

The source said it was too difficult to estimate the size because they had only seen one photo with no clear scale.

The object of interest is in the custody of a police agency in Western Australia. Authorities there wouldn’t comment further because it’s part of a federal investigation.

Underwater search nearly done

A high-tech underwater drone was completing its 10th mission Wednesday, without finding any sign of the Boeing 777 jetliner.

The Bluefin-21 has scanned about 80% of the intended territory.

With 20% of the search area left to be explored by the drone, the search strategy remains the same, Hishammuddin said Wednesday.

“We will continue with the search operation until we fully cover the search area,” he said.

Stormy weather postponed the air search for a second day Wednesday. The ships plying the waters off the coast of Australia kept their vigil.

And despite the search efforts for MH370 repeatedly coming up empty during these 47 days, there’s no suggestion the hunt in the southern Indian Ocean is anywhere close to ending.

Quite to the contrary, according to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

“We are not going to abandon … the families of the 239 people who were on that plane by lightly surrendering while there is reasonable hope of finding something,” he said Wednesday. “We may well rethink the search, but we will not rest until we have done everything we can to solve this mystery.”

The investigation into Flight 370 is the responsibility of Malaysia. But in early April, Australia accepted an invitation from Malaysia to lead the search for the missing aircraft and participate in the investigation as an accredited representative.

What comes next?

Malaysian and Australian authorities are already mapping out a long-term strategy for the search, which could go on for months or years, if the two-year search for Air France Flight 447 is any guide.

Guidelines drafted by Malaysia raise the possibility of a significantly wider search area should the current underwater search fail to turn up evidence of the plane. The document discusses how best to deploy resources, including new underwater search assets.

If the underwater search comes up empty, it could ground the air search as well, CNN aviation analyst Miles O’Brien said.

“If it doesn’t pan out, then all the equations that have been put in the mix to determine where debris might be by hindcasting the ocean currents, all of that is for naught,” he said.

The next logical step after the underwater search is to “rethink all of the information we have at hand,” ocean search specialist Rob McCallum told CNN.

An expanded search area might include the last 370 miles of the plane’s flight path, perhaps 15 miles on either side, he said.

He also said it would make sense to turn to deep-towed sonar, which provides less resolution than the Bluefin-21 but about 10 times the range.

What happens if data recorders are found

Investigators would love to find the flight data recorders from Flight 370, a potential treasure trove of information into what happened to the jetliner and the 239 passengers and crew on board.

If found, the “black boxes” probably would go to the Australian Transport Safety Board’s accident investigation lab.

But the investigation is officially Malaysian, so that country’s officials would decide where the boxes would go.

Australia is just one of a handful of countries that have the capability and technical know-how to decipher what’s inside a black box.

The Malaysian Cabinet approved the appointment of an international investigation team to look into the disappearance of Flight 370, Hishammuddin said.

The names of the members will be announced next week, he added. He also said the team will not be looking at the criminal aspects of the investigation, which remain under the Royal Malaysian Police.

“The main purpose is to evaluate and determine the cause of the accident,” Hishammuddin said.

Malaysia has completed a preliminary report on the incident, as required by the International Civil Aviation Organization, but has not released it publicly, he said.

Getting the data

Sometimes, getting the data is simple.

“A lot of our work is with undamaged recorders, and it’s very easy to download them much as you would a USB memory stick,” said Neil Campbell, an Australian transport safety investigator with more than two decades of experience.

But the process becomes much more technical if the recorders are damaged.

In the case of water damage, possible after weeks at the bottom of the ocean, Campbell will rinse the board very carefully, then use a water displacement liquid, before drying out the circuit board in an oven. That process can take a couple of days.

After that, it’s a process of downloading the raw data and decoding the information, or in the case of the voice recorder, listening to what was said.

It may be the only way the families of those on board the March 8 flight — that set off from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur destined for Beijing — may get answers to the questions they’ve been asking.

“There’s a satisfaction in working out what happened with the accident and the conclusions, and the closure that that brings,” Campbell said.

By Ed Payne and Mariano Castillo

CNN’s David Molko contributed to this report.

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