Nineteen days into the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, the latest satellite images are the first to suggest that a debris field from the plane — rather than just a few objects — may be floating in the southern Indian Ocean, though no wreckage has been confirmed. Previously, an Australian satellite detected two large objects and a Chinese satellite detected one.
All three finds were made in roughly the same area, far southwest of Australia, where a desperate, multinational hunt has been going on for days.
Clouds obscured the latest satellite images, but dozens of objects could be seen in the gaps, ranging in length from one meter (3 feet) to 23 meters (76 feet). At a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Hishammuddin said some of them "appeared to be bright, possibly indicating solid materials."
The images were taken Sunday and relayed by French-based Airbus Defence and Space, a division of Europe's Airbus Group; its businesses include the operation of satellites and satellite communications. The company said in a statement that it has mobilized five observation satellites, including two that can produce very high resolution images, to help locate the plane.
Various floating objects have been spotted in the area by planes over the last week, including on Wednesday, when the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said three more objects were seen. The authority said two objects seen from a civil aircraft appeared to be rope, and that a New Zealand military plane spotted a blue object.
None of the objects were seen on a second pass, a frustration that has been repeated several times in the hunt for Flight 370, missing since March 8 with 239 people aboard.
Australian officials did not say whether they received the French imagery in time for search planes out at sea to look for the possible debris field, and did not return repeated phone messages seeking further comment.
It remains uncertain whether any of the objects seen came from the plane; they could have come from a cargo ship or something else.
The search resumed Wednesday after fierce winds and high waves forced crews to take a break Tuesday. A total of 12 planes and five ships from the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand were participating in the search, hoping to find even a single piece of the jet that could offer tangible evidence of a crash and provide clues to find the rest of the wreckage.
Malaysia announced Monday that a mathematical analysis of the final known satellite signals from the plane showed that it had crashed in the sea, killing everyone on board.
The new data greatly reduced the search zone, but it remains huge — an area estimated at 1.6 million square kilometers (622,000 square miles), about the size of Alaska.
"We're throwing everything we have at this search," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Nine Network television on Wednesday.
"This is about the most inaccessible spot imaginable. It's thousands of kilometers from anywhere," he later told Seven Network television. He vowed that "we will do what we can to solve this riddle."
Malaysia has been criticized over its handling of the search, though it is one of the most perplexing mysteries in aviation history. Much of the most strident criticism has come from relatives of the 153 Chinese missing, some of whom expressed outrage that Malaysia essentially declared their loved ones dead without recovering a single piece of wreckage.
At a hotel banquet room in Beijing on Wednesday, a delegation of Malaysian government and airline officials explained what they knew to relatives of those lost. They were met with skepticism and even ridicule by some of the roughly 100 people in audience, who questioned some of the report's findings, including how investigators could have concluded the direction and speed of the plane. One man later said he wanted to pummel everyone in the Malaysian delegation.
"Time will heal emotions that are running high. We fully understand," Hishammuddin said in Kuala Lumpur.