Young said the hundreds of floating objects detected over the last week by satellites in the former search area, previously considered possible wreckage, “may or may not actually be objects.”
“In regards to the old areas, we have not seen any debris 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,” he said.
But in Malaysia, Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said at a news conference that because of ocean drifts, “this new search area could still be consistent with the potential objects identified by various satellite images over the past week.”
The new search area is about 80 percent smaller than the old one, but it remains large: about 319,000 square kilometers (123,000 square miles), about the size of Poland or New Mexico.
Sea depths in the new area range from 2,000 meters (6,560 feet) to 4,000 meters (13,120 feet), Young said. There are trenches in the area that go even deeper, Australia’s national science agency said in a statement. That includes the Diamantina trench, which is up to 7,300 meters (24,000 feet) deep, but it was unclear whether the deepest parts of the trench are in the search area.
If the wreckage is especially deep, that will complicate search efforts. The U.S. Navy is sending equipment that can hear “black box” pings up to about 6,100 meters (20,000 feet) deep, and an unmanned underwater vehicle that operates at depths up to 4,500 meters (14,800 feet).
Young said 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,” Young told reporters. “I don’t count the original work as a waste of time.”
He said the new search zone, being about 700 kilometers (434 miles) closer to mainland Australia, will be easier to reach. Planes used so much fuel getting to and from the old search area that had only about two hours of spotting time per sortie.
The new area also has better weather conditions than the old one, where searches were regularly scrapped because of storms, high winds and low visibility.
“The search area has moved out of the ‘roaring 40s,’ which creates very adverse weather,” Young said, referring to the latitude of the previous search area. “I’m not sure that we’ll get perfect weather out there, but it’s likely to be better than we saw in the past.”
Australia’s HMAS Success was expected to arrive in the area Saturday, Young said. The Chinese Maritime Safety Administration patrol boat Haixun 01 was also on site, and several more Chinese ships were on their way.
Malaysian officials said earlier this week that satellite data confirmed the plane crashed into the southern Indian Ocean.
Authorities are rushing to find any piece of the plane to help them locate the black boxes, or flight data and voice recorders, that will help solve the mystery of why the jet flew so far off-course. The battery in a black box normally lasts for at least a month.
Officials are already preparing for the hunt for the black boxes. The U.S. Navy towed pinger locator and Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle are to be fitted onto an Australian vessel, the Ocean Shield, when it reaches Albany, a port near Perth, in a day or two, said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.