KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Australia’s prime minister said Thursday two objects possibly related to the missing Malaysia Airlines flight have been spotted on satellite imagery in the Indian Ocean and an air force aircraft was diverted to the area to try to locate them.
The Orion aircraft was expected to arrive in the area Thursday afternoon, Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Parliament in Canberra. Three additional aircraft are expected to follow for a more intensive search, he said.
But Abbott cautioned that the task of locating the objects will be extremely difficult and “it may turn out that they are not related to the search for flight MH370.”
He did not say where the objects were. Military planes from Australia, the U.S. and New Zealand were covering a search region over the southern Indian Ocean that was narrowed down on Wednesday from 600,000 square kilometers (232,000 square miles) to 305,000 square kilometers (117,000 square miles).
The hunt for the Boeing 777 has been punctuated by several false leads since it disappeared March 8 above the Gulf of Thailand.
Oil slicks that were spotted did not contain jet fuel. A yellow object thought to be from the plane turned out to be a piece of sea trash. Chinese satellite images showed possible plane debris, but nothing was found. But this is the first time that possible objects have been spotted since the search area was massively expanded into two corridors, one stretching from northern Thailand into Central Asia and the other from the Strait of Malacca down to southern reaches of the Indian Ocean.
Abbott said he spoke to the prime minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, about the latest developments. Australia’s high commissioner to Malaysia, Rod Smith, joined a meeting of senior Malaysia search officials at a Kuala Lumpur hotel after Abbott’s announcement. Smith did not respond to reporters’ questions.
Nearly two weeks after the plane went missing, the FBI has joined forces with Malaysian authorities in analyzing deleted data on a flight simulator belonging to the pilot of the missing jet.
Files containing records of flight simulations were deleted Feb. 3 from the device found in the home of the pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu said.
It was not clear whether investigators thought that deleting the files was unusual. They might hold hints of unusual flight paths that could help explain where the missing plane went, or the files could have been deleted simply to clear memory for other material.
Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told a news conference Wednesday that Zaharie is considered innocent until proven guilty. He said members of the pilot’s family are cooperating in the investigation.
Zaharie was known to some within the online world of flight simulation enthusiasts.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation by name, said the FBI has been asked to analyze the deleted simulator files.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in Washington that the FBI was working with Malaysian authorities. “At this point, I don’t think we have any theories,” he said.
Flight 370 disappeared March 8 on a night flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Malaysian authorities have not ruled out any possible explanation, but have said the evidence so far suggests the flight was deliberately turned back across Malaysia to the Strait of Malacca, with its communications systems disabled. They are unsure what happened next.
Investigators have identified two giant arcs of territory spanning the possible positions of the plane about 7½ hours after takeoff, based on its last faint signal to a satellite — an hourly “handshake” signal that continues even when communications are switched off. The arcs stretch up as far as Kazakhstan in central Asia and down deep into the southern Indian Ocean.
Police are considering the possibility of hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or anyone else on board, and have asked for background checks from abroad on all foreign passengers.