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Malaysian Plane Debris? Why It's a Race to Find Out

This handout from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority shows the satellite i

This handout from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority shows the satellite images of the two objects that officials say could possibly be related to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Australian aircraft are have been scouring a remote corner of the southern Indian Ocean to confirm what could be large pieces of the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. However, marine scientists say the nearly two weeks that has elapsed already will make it difficult to calculate the point of impact -- and the black box that could tell the world what happened.

"Time is everything here," said Luca Centurioni, a researcher in physical oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and director of the Global Drifter Program there. "The sooner they find something and confirm it the better."

Australian military officials released satellite images of what they believe to be two objects, one about 80 feet in length and the other about 15 feet. The objects were floating in an area about four hours flight -- or 1,550 miles, southwest of Perth, Australia.

Clouds and rain on Thursday made it difficult for the search aircraft to get a better look at the objects, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. But weather around the site is expected to improve over the weekend.

The aircraft and its 239 passengers and crew disappeared March 8 on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing. The search has been plagued by often contradictory information from Malaysian authorities, and confusion about the plane's flight path.

Investigators are also studying data from a flight simulator in the pilot's home for clues as to whether he played a role in the disappearance.

Aviation experts say the final answers could lie within the flight recorder, or so-called "black box" that is not designed to float. The recorder does have an electronic signal that will ping for several weeks and can withstand the pressure several thousand feet underwater.

It took two years to locate the flight recorder for Air France Flight 447, which disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean from Brazil to Paris in June 2009. However rescuers found debris from the plane after only five days, and were able to narrow the search area quickly.

Centurioni studies the surface currents that make up the world's oceans and has a number of ocean-going drifting instruments in the southern Indian Ocean near where Australian Air Force personnel are flying. He said wind, waves and surface currents could quickly disperse pieces of debris.

Larger objects that stick out of the water will be pushed more rapidly like a sail in the wind, while objects just at or below the surface will be at the mercy of currents.

"What you can be sure is the longer you wait, the more dispersion there will be and the harder it will be to find the impact site," Centurioni said.

In the past few years, scientists have improved their understanding of how the world's oceans circulate like giant conveyor belts. But even with drifting instruments, satellite measurements and shipboard cruises, there are still some places where data remains scanty.

Jose Borrero, a New Zealand-based marine consultant, helped develop one model for the spread of debris across the Pacific Ocean from the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011.

"From where they find the (airplane) debris now, you can run the model backwards but there is uncertainty in that," he said. "There's a bit of randomness that you put into the drifter models. That would give a zone and use other information to narrow it down. But as time goes by the inaccuracy of that zone is going to get worse and worse."

If the Australian crews confirm the debris is from the missing craft, Centurioni and other ocean scientists will likely be enlisted in the search for the black box. Some U.S. oceanographers have already agreed to help with an underwater search using remotely-operated submersibles, but Malaysian officials haven't taken their offer.

One of the Australian aircraft, a C-130 Hercules, will drop marker buoys in the area to give scientists information about water movement for drift modeling.

"They will provide an ongoing reference point if the task of relocating the objects becomes protracted," said John Young, a spokesman for the Australian Maritime Safety Administration.

"The objects are relatively indistinct on the imagery. I don't profess to be an expert in assessing the imagery, but those who are expert indicate they are credible sightings. The indication to me is of objects that are a reasonable size and probably awash with water bobbing up and down under the surface."(Mar 20, 2014 02:40 PM ET // by Eric Niiler)

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