BEIJING -- Australian Prime Minter Tony Abbott said Thursday that two objects that could be wreckage of Malaysia Air flight 370 were found by satellites off the west coast of Australia.
"New and credible information has come to light in relation to the search ... in the south Indian Ocean," Abbott told Australia's parliament in Canberra on Thursday morning, local time.
"The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has received information based on satellite imagery of two objects possibly related to the search.''
John Young, general manager of the maritime authority, described the largest of the objects as about 24 (78 feet) meters long and located about 1,500 miles off the coast of Perth.
"This is a lead. It is probably the best lead we have right now. Bt we have to get there, find them, see them, assess them, to know if it is really meaningful or not,'' said Young at another press conference in Canberra. ``They will be really difficult to find and they may not be associated with the aircraft.''
The Australians said that four aircraft heading to the scene today, including a U.S. P-8 Poseidon. An Hercules is dropping buoys on the locations found on satellite to serve as markers and to provide analysis of the currents to determine where the debris might have drifted.
The flight disappeared March 8th on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew aboard. An international search operation has been focusing on two possible corridors – one heading northwest towards Turkmenistan and the other south towards Australia over the Indian Ocean. The location, believed to be off the coast of Perth, is along the one of the flight paths identified by Inmarsat data, which suggested the plane stayed in the air for nearly eight hours.
It was unclear when the satellite images were taken. Australia has been pouring over imagery taken in the hours after the plane disappeared; debris spotted twelve days ago are likely to have drifted elsewhere.
In addition, the identification of debris would only be a first step in locating the missing plane. In 2009, when an Air France flight crashed over the Atlantic, debris was located after 36 hours, but the black box and bodies weren't recovered for another two years.
The discovery would clear up much of the mystery surrounding the fate of Flight 370 and dash hopes of family members that the fight might have landed somewhere intact, perhaps with passengers alive and taken hostage.
Out of 227 passengers, 154 were Chinese, and the search has been at the top of Chinese news since the plane's disappearance.
"This is really bad news,'' Wang Juntao, a website founder in Beijing, wrote on his microblog account in the morning.
"I hope that Malaysia will come out and deny it as they always did,'' worte Ma Qin, a chairman of a Beijing investment company.
If the objects found off Australia's coast are confirmed to be from flight 370, it means the plane might have cruised on autopilot until it ran out of the fuel supplied for the 2,700-mile flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
The location is more than 3,000 miles from Kuala Lumpur.
The flight took off at 12.40 a.m., and its communications were turned off within 50 minutes, possibly by a pilot or a hijacker. Inmarsat satellites detected faint "pings" from the engine up until 8.11 a.m. showing it was still in the air at that time.
Aviation analysts said that the fact that the Australian prime minister personally announced the findings suggested that he has a high degree of confidence in the findings.
Four days after the plane's disappearance, a Chinese agency released satellites of four objects found in the South China Sea along the flight path, prompting the Malaysians to send planes rushing to the scene, but they proved to be unrelated. There have been dozens of other false leads—with search and rescue crews picking up rafts, life preservers, cushions, even a dead body, picked up around Asian waters.