If two large objects floating in a remote part of the Indian Ocean west of Australia turn out to be parts of the missing Malaysian jet, they should eventually lead searchers to the main debris from the Boeing 777 on the ocean floor.
But while confirmation of the objects could signal the end of a nearly two-week-long search, it would mark just the beginning of sorting out why Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 fell from the sky. (Related: "How Finding Debris Could Quickly Solve Mystery.")
Staging a deep-sea investigation in the part of the world where the objects have been spotted would take a while under the best circumstances, and this part of the Indian Ocean is famous for its harsh conditions.
Once the debris is located, the next steps involve moving ships and equipment into place for salvage work that could last weeks. (Related: "Missing Plane Spotlights 4 Ways Aircraft Talk to the Ground.")
The highest priorities will be to find the jet's black boxes, which contain essential flight information and quite possibly the key to the accident; recovery of the bodies of the 239 people on board; and pulling the wreckage of the Boeing 777 to the surface and moving it to shore.
Previous salvage operations of this sort have sometimes dragged on for months and years. Although floating debris was located within five days after Air France Flight 447 crashed into the deep Atlantic in 2009, it took more than two years to find the plane's black boxes.
"You need a lot of people who know how to recognize aircraft debris, which can take many shapes," says John Fish, vice president of American Underwater Search and Survey (AUSS), which has worked to recover wreckage from several airline crashes into oceans. "You could end up with a debris field that's spread out with no one piece resembling parts of an aircraft."
Calculating Ocean Impact
The Malaysian plane disappeared about 40 minutes into a six-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing early March 8. The plane's communications systems stopped working, and the plane made an abrupt left turn to the west, away from its flight path.
Malaysian authorities have said they believe the plane was deliberately redirected. But if that is the case, why it continued to fly on for hours remains a mystery.
If the objects are confirmed as wreckage from the missing plane, searchers will work to track them back to the place they entered the Indian Ocean by correlating a time of the crash with currents and weather patterns. The process is known as "hindcasting."
Searchers are guessing that the plane crashed after running out of fuel about seven hours after taking off from Kuala Lumpur. That is at the far southern end of an arc that investigators estimate the jet could have traveled after veering away from its original route.
Once the impact point is located, searchers will use sonar to try to detect the pingers on the black boxes before their 30-day battery life runs out.
The two objects now being run down off Australia appear in grainy images taken by a commercial satellite on March 16, according to the Australia Maritime Safety Authority.
The objects are about 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) southwest of Perth on Australia's west coast. Search planes, hampered by bad weather and clouds, were unable to locate the debris Thursday. The search, based out of Perth, resumes Friday at daybreak.
Adding to the difficulty of the operation is the area of Indian Ocean where the wreckage may lie, which is one of the most remote in the world and has some of the roughest seas.
The region is known as the "roaring forties," after its latitude on the globe. Consequently, the wreckage could have drifted, complicating the effort to pinpoint the point of impact.
"The winds are what characterize that area," says Jim Barry, a marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Monterey, California, who has crossed the region by ship. "It's just a wide-open area of the ocean with no land mass that can stop the wind.
"It gets worse when you get to the furious fifties or the screaming sixties," he said. "The farther south you go, the rougher it gets."
Presuming a Breakthrough
The largest of the detected floating objects is almost 79 feet (24 meters) long; the other piece is 16 feet (5 meters) long, according to Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who announced the details. If the pieces belong to the missing jet, their large size suggests that the plane hit the water intact.
Abbott, however, also cautioned that the debris could have fallen from a container ship transiting the region.
The images were taken by DigitalGlobe, a Colorado-based company that is sponsoring a crowdsourcing search for the missing plane on its website. The images are not part of the crowdsourcing search, which involves examination of satellite imagery farther north in the Indian Ocean, a company spokesperson says.
DigitalGlobe has been looking for debris since the day after the plane disappeared.
For now, searchers are proceeding as if this is the breakthrough they needed in what has now become the longest search in modern aviation history. The U.S. Navy is steaming to the area and has sent a Navy P-8 Poseidon to join the three P-3 Orion planes, also known as "submarine hunters," that belong to the air forces of Australia and New Zealand.
China's icebreaker ship for Antarctic research, the Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, will also leave Perth to join the effort, Reuters reported.