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Australian authorities shift MH370 search as new clues emerge

Australia moves its search 600 miles north, as conflicting information from different countries complicates effort

The search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 jet moved more than 600 miles north Friday, with vessels sent to a hitherto unexamined patch of the Indian Ocean where potential debris was spotted.

A New Zealand military plane, one of nine aircraft hunting for the missing jet, found the objects Friday, though the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said on Twitter that it would likely be Saturday before one of the six ships on the way to the site could determine if the articles were indeed wreckage from a crash.

The updated search focus comes after bad weather delayed investigations for days. For more than a week, ships and surveillance planes have been scouring seas about 1,500 miles southwest of Perth, on Australia’s west coast, where satellite images suggested there could be debris from the Boeing 777. The jetliner went missing on March 8 with 239 people aboard.

The dramatic shift in the search area was based on analysis of radar data between the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca, the AMSA said.

At that time, the plane was making a radical diversion west from its course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

"As a result, today's search will shift to an area 685 miles to the northeast, based on updated advice provided by the international investigation team in Malaysia," the AMSA said in a statement.

The latest analysis indicated the plane was traveling faster than previously estimated, resulting in increased fuel use and reducing the possible distance the aircraft could have flown before running out of fuel. Just as a car loses efficiency when driven at high speeds, a plane gets fewer miles out of its fuel when it flies faster.

"This is our best estimate of the area in which the aircraft is likely to have crashed into the ocean," Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said at a news conference in Canberra.

He said a wide range of scenarios went into the calculation, so the search area remains large: about 123,000 square miles.

"We're looking at the data from the so-called pinging of the satellite, the polling of the satellites, and that gives a distance from a satellite to the aircraft to within a reasonable approximation," Dolan said. He said that information was coupled with various projections of aircraft performance and the plane's distance from the satellites at given times.

He said the search now is for surface debris to give an indication of "where the main aircraft wreckage is likely to be. This has a long way to go."

John Young, manager of the AMSA emergency response division, said such a change in search area is not unusual.

"This is the normal business of search-and-rescue operations — that new information comes to light, refined analyses take you to a different place," he told reporters. "I don't count the original work as a waste of time."

Satellite images showed suspected debris, including pieces as large as 70 feet long, in the original search area in the southern Indian Ocean.

An AMSA spokeswoman said she had no further information on what the debris might be or if it was related to the missing plane.

Potential debris has also been seen from search aircraft, but none has been picked up or confirmed as the wreckage of Flight MH370, which disappeared from civilian radar screens less than an hour after taking off.

Officials believe someone on the flight may have shut off the plane's communications systems before flying it thousands of miles off course.

Theories range from a hijacking to sabotage to a possible suicide by one of the pilots, but investigators have not ruled out technical problems.

Ten aircraft and six ships were now being directed to the new area, and the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organization was redirecting satellites there, the AMSA said.

Meanwhile, for relatives of the 239 people aboard the plane, it was yet another agonizing day of waiting.

"Until something is picked up and analyzed to make sure it's from MH370, we can't believe it," Steve Wang, whose 57-year-old mother was on the flight, said in Beijing. "Without that, it's useless."

Wire services

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