It is the latest speck of hope in the 16-month search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
On Wednesday, a piece of debris from a plane was found in the Indian Ocean near Reunion, an island about 500 miles east of Madagascar. The object appears to be a wing component — or flaperon — from a passenger jet.
Air safety investigators have a "high degree of confidence" that aircraft debris found in the Indian Ocean is of a wing component unique to the Boeing 777, the same model as the Malaysia Airlines plane that disappeared last year, a U.S. official said Wednesday. They have stopped short of confirming it is part of the missing plane, with international authorities being flown in to investigate the likelihood.
MH370 vanished without a trace en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Mar. 8, 2014 with 239 people on board. It departed at 12:41 a.m. local time, but air traffic control lost contact with the plane less than half an hour into the flight.
How was the object located?
Despite a massive search by Australian authorities throughout the unexplored depths of the southern Indian Ocean, no solid clues relating to the missing plane have been discovered. On Wednesday local time, a man residing on the tiny French island territory of Reunion contacted French aviation expert Xavier Tytelman with photographs of what appeared to be a plane part.
Tytelman used his contacts and a private forum of aviation specialists to dive deeper into the discovery. He analysed the photographs of the object to try and determine if the piece belonged to MH370. So far, he wrote on his blog, he has discovered similar details to the schematics of flaperons of the Boeing 777, and a reference number BB670, which does not relate to the missing plane.
Using all the information he has available, Tytelman has not yet been able to say definitely if the piece is linked to MH370.
Who is investigating?
After the discovery, French officials attended the site in Reunion and began to examine the airplane part, a spokesperson for the French investigation agency BEA confirmed to Reuters.
"At this point in time the BEA is studying the information on the airplane part found in La Reunion, in coordination with our Malaysian and Australian colleagues, and with the judicial authorities," the BEA spokesman said. "The part has not yet been identified and it is not possible at this hour to ascertain whether the part is from a B777 and/or from MH370."
Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai told reporters at the United Nations in New York that Malaysia has sent a team to the site to work with the French and determine if the debris came from MH370.
"Whatever wreckage found needs to be further verified before we can further confirm whether it belongs to MH370," he said. "So we have dispatched a team to investigate on this issues and we hope that we can identify it as soon as possible."
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau, the organisation leading the search in the Indian Ocean, confirmed it is having photos assessed by Boeing, the manufacturer of the Malaysia Airlines Plane, to determine if it is from a Boeing passenger plane. The ATSB is working with French authorities to determine whether the piece is from a Boeing.
Boeing released a statement, but directed questions about the investigation to the ATSB.
"Boeing remains committed to supporting the MH370 investigation and the search for the airplane," the company said in a statement emailed to Mashable. "We continue to share our technical expertise and analysis. Our goal, along with the entire global aviation industry, continues to be not only to find the airplane, but also to determine what happened – and why."
What are investigators looking for?
Investigators will first try to determine whether the item is a part from a Boeing 777-200ER, and then they can try to work out if it came from the missing plane.
ATSB spokesman Joe Hattley told the Australian Associated Press investigators would be trying to locate two numbers, a part number and then a serial number.
The part number will tell us whether the piece, which may not have been manufactured by Boeing, is actually from the wing of that particular type of aircraft, and the serial number will tell us whether it is the missing Boeing.
"Similar parts on different planes would have a number and you'd have a serial number," he told AAP. "If we can locate a serial number we might be able to match it to a specific air frame."
Australian aviation expert Peter Marosszeky also confirmed to ABC News most major components of modern airplanes can be traced by an identifying number. "Essentially most of these major components do have identifiers on them, it is a requirement by the regulators," he said.
He said he would be surprised if it is a Boeing aircraft, due to the white paint on the debris that can be seen in pictures as Malaysia Airlines planes have grey paint. Either way, Marosszeky said, "looking at the state of the components, it has had a violent departure from an aircraft at some stage."
If the part belongs to MH370, it could provide valuable clues to investigators trying to figure out what caused the aircraft to vanish in the first place, said Jason Middleton, an aviation professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
The nature of the damage to the debris could help indicate whether the plane broke up in the air or when it hit the water, and how violently it did so, he said.
The barnacles attached to the part could also help marine biologists determine roughly how long it has been in the water, he said.
When will we have an answer?
Hattley told ABC News the ATSB is currently trying to determine if the piece is connected to MH370. It is expected we will know if this is the case within the next 48 hours. Boeing would not comment on a timeline.
What's the likelihood of it being connected to MH370?
The discovery of debris near Reunion would be in line with the crash site being in the mysterious depths of the southern Indian Ocean.
Satellite tracking data from the missing plane led to a multi-million dollar search of the seabed of the southern Indian Ocean by the Australian government, which is still ongoing. Where the debris was discovered is just a few thousand miles from the current search zone and in the same body of water.
The possibility of debris washing up near Reunion island is a scientific possibility. Although the currents today are significantly different to those seen 16 months ago, the Indian Ocean Gyre could move debris from the southern Indian Ocean in a counterclockwise direction towards Africa, spitting it out near the island of Reunion.
What does this all mean?
Even if the debris is confirmed to have come from MH370, it may not lead us any closer to the resting spot of the plane, but it will be the first confirmation that the plane crashed into the Indian Ocean.
Confirmation that the debris came from MH370 would also finally disprove theories that the airliner disappeared somewhere in the northern hemisphere, ATSB Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan said.
If the find proved to be part of the missing aircraft, it would be consistent with the theory that the plane crashed within the 120,000 square kilometre (46,000 square mile) search area, 1,800 kilometres (1,100 miles) southwest of Australia, he said.
It was well understood after the aircraft disappeared that if there was any floating debris from the plane, Indian Ocean currents would eventually bring it to the east coast of Africa, said aviation safety expert John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. But the debris is unlikely to provide much help in tracing the ocean's currents back to the location of the main wreckage, he said.
"It's going to be hard to say with any certainty where the source of this was," he said. "It just confirms that the airplane is in the water and hasn't been hijacked to some remote place and is waiting to be used for some other purpose. ... We haven't lost any 777s anywhere else."
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.
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