MELBOURNE, Australia — A Norwegian ship reached the search area in the Indian Ocean Thursday where two objects have been spotted by satellite imagery that may be debris related to the missing Malaysian airliner.
Australian authorities say the sighting is the most credible lead in the hunt for the plane that vanished nearly two weeks ago with 239 passengers and crew aboard.
The Norwegian merchant ship, St. Petersburg, was the first vessel to reach the area, the BBC reported. Ships from Australia, New Zealand and the United States were also en route to the area, about 1,550 southwest of Perth, Australia.
The St. Petersburg was diverted from its path at the request of Australian authorities and spent several hours looking for signs of debris inside a designated 16-nautical-mile area, a spokesman for shipping company Höegh Autoliners told The Local, a Norwegian newspaper. "We expect this to take a little bit of time," spokesman Haakon Svane said.
The objects, found in satellite imagery, are "of reasonable size and probably awash with water," John Young, general manager of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, said at a press conference in Canberra, Australia's capital, on Thursday.
Other aircraft and ships traveled to the area to try to locate and examine the objects, one of which has a dimension of 24 meters (almost 80 feet) while the other one was smaller. A U.S. P-8 Poseidon aircraft already is on the scene, Young said.
However, the search was scaled back on Thursday because of limited visibility and bad weather and then ended at nightfall, according to Australian officials. The search will resume on Friday.
Earlier, the crew of the Poseidon told ABC News that their aircraft was getting radar hits of "significant size" in water's beneath the surface near the objects but that it was too early to tell if these hits were related to debris from the missing plane.
"This is a lead, this is probably the best lead we have right now, but we have to find them, see them, assess them," Young said of the objects.
"If there is a positive ID (of the debris) ... then (investigators) will likely study and model currents and flows in the ocean as soon as possible to find out where to look for the black boxes. Or, rather, listen for them, as they will likely still be sending out sonar signals at this point (about 30 days after an aircraft goes down)," Sidney Dekker, an expert on aviation safety, told USA TODAY in e-mailed comments.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott informed Malaysian Prime Minister
"Following specialist analysis of this satellite imagery, two possible objects related to the search have been identified," Abbott told parliament. Two Australians were on board the missing jet.
However, Malaysia's Hishammuddin cautioned: "At this stage, Australian officials have yet to establish whether these objects are indeed related to the search for MH370." He reiterated that call for caution during his daily news conference in Kuala Lumpur.
The ASMA's Young said visibility was poor and may hamper efforts to find the objects. He said they "are relatively indistinct on the imagery … but those who are experts indicate they are credible sightings." The images were taken on March 16. It is not immediately clear why they only surfaced today.
Military planes from Australia, the U.S. and New Zealand have been covering a search region over the southern Indian Ocean that was narrowed down from 232,000 square miles to 117,000 square miles.
Separate images released by Beijing last week that appeared to indicate possible plane debris over the South China Sea were subsequently ruled out.
On Wednesday, 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.
More than 150 Chinese nationals were on board Flight MH370 that disappeared March 8 on a night flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
In Beijing, Chinese relatives of the ill-fated passengers said they were troubled by the latest news but refused to give up hope.
"I am so tortured by the news these days," said Zhang Hongjie, 44, whose wife was on the plane, returning to their Beijing home after a holiday in Malaysia. "I still have hope. I wish my wife is waiting too, somewhere on earth."
A Malaysian delegation sent from Kuala Lumpur was expected to meet Chinese relatives Friday morning local time in what may prove a stormy meeting at the Lido Hotel, where many relatives have gathered since the plane disappeared on March 8.
"I hope the officials arriving from Malaysia today tell us exactly where the plane is, and whether our relatives are safe or not," said Zhang. "I want no other things from them." Zhang has remained at the Lido, while other family members, including the couple's 18 year-old daughter, have returned home, a one-hour drive away. "They will come as soon as there is news," he said.
While most Chinese relatives and friends have remained at a hotel in Beijing, some have flown to the Malaysian capital to be closer to developments. Their anger and frustration at lack of hard news boiled over in Kuala Lumpur Wednesday when at least three relatives were bundled away by security after trying to protest to journalists covering a daily press conference by the Malaysian authorities.
One woman from Shanghai, Wu Xia, asked others on WeChat to stay strong: "Thirteen days have passed, all kinds of news, like the debris found today, are gouging and cutting our hearts," she wrote. "Relatives and friends, let's pray together, we must keep a whole heart to face the waiting and life ahead of us."
In Putrajaya, near Kuala Lumpur, Selamat Omar, father one of the passengers, Khairul Amri, told USA TODAY that it is hard to pinpoint his feelings after hearing news that possible debris had been spotted.
"I don't know what I am feeling right now," he said. "I was hoping that it was a hijack because then there will be a big hope that my son is safe. But now that hope is dashed."
He said that he is unsure whether fiinding the plane will in fact bring closure.
"I lost my son in a horrible way," he said. "It's a tragedy. I am not sure if I will overcome the grief that I feel now.."
If it is the flight, he added, " then it's fated that this is how it will be."
Omar is one of the few relatives of passengers who has defied attempts by Malaysia Airlines authorities to keep family members form speaking to reporters.