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Satellites again spot debris in search area for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

PEARCE AIR FORCE BASE, Australia – The search for a missing Malaysia Airlines jet entered its third week Sunday, as data from a French satellite buttressed the theory that the plane might have fallen into the southern Indian Ocean, far off the west coast of Australia, where a multinational search for clues has expanded. The day ended without any wreckage being found.

Australia and China have already released satellite images of blurry objects floating in the sea, and officials said those might be wreckage from the Boeing 777-200, which disappeared March 8 after leaving Kuala Lumpur for a routine night flight to Beijing. Now a French satellite has also spied objects in the southern Indian Ocean that might be related to the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the Malaysian Ministry of Transport said in a statement.

France’s ministry of foreign affairs said the possible debris was spotted using satellite-based radar but gave no other details about the image or its precise location. Yet the announcement appears likely to reinforce a belief that the plane probably fell into the ocean far off of Western Australia after veering sharply from its planned route. Investigators say they believe military radar and satellite signals indicate the plane cut across Peninsular Malaysia, headed west over the Indian Ocean and then possibly headed south toward where Australia has organized a search involving New Zealand and the United States. Britain, China and Japan have also sent military planes and ships to aid the hunt.

Flight Lt. Russel Adams, the pilot of an Australian P-3 military aircraft that spent more than 10 hours Sunday searching for debris, said weather conditions had deteriorated in parts of the search zone.

“There was cloud down to the surface,” he told reporters minutes after landing at the base here, 31 miles north of the Western Australia city of Perth.

But the search area is vast, and a statement by the 7th Fleet of the U.S. Navy said that the overall weather conditions in the southern Indian Ocean were much clearer Sunday than the previous few days, allowing for full use of electronic and visual search tools.

The search is focused on an area about 1,550 miles southwest of Perth, and on Sunday eight aircraft, including a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon, were to patrol that area. Two Chinese transport aircraft that arrived here Saturday will join the search operations today, Australian authorities said. Two Japanese patrol planes were also joining the effort.

On Saturday, the Chinese government said one of its satellites had spotted an “unusual object” Tuesday in an area where Australia had already organized a search. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the country’s planes and ships would try to reach the area and look for the whitish object, about 74 feet by 43 feet. It was observed about 65 nautical miles southwest of the spot where, two days earlier, another satellite had captured similar images of floating objects, which the Australian government said might be wreckage from Flight 370.

Experts on satellite imagery and open-ocean recovery said the two sightings might be of the same object or objects. That might give the search teams more information with which to calculate ocean currents and drift speeds, turn back the clock and estimate where Flight 370 might have struck the ocean sometime after 8 a.m. Malaysia time on March 8.

There is no evidence that the debris from either Indian Ocean sighting is from the missing airliner. On Saturday, a New Zealand P-3 Orion patrol plane flew over the area and reported sighting only “clumps of seaweed,” said the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is overseeing the search, on Sunday. Early search efforts were plagued by sightings of debris that turned out to be false leads, including a satellite image from the South China Sea released by the same Chinese agency that released the new picture Saturday.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia, who was on a trip to Papua New Guinea, said Sunday that the Chinese images were consistent with the images he announced in Parliament on Thursday.

“Obviously, we have now had a number of very credible leads, and there is increasing hope, no more than hope, that we might be on the road to discovering what did happen,” Abbott said.