The Malaysia Airlines aircraft that has been missing for a week was tracked over the Indian Ocean by satellites for more than six hours after it disappeared from air traffic control screens off the east coast of Malaysia.
This information, which emerged on Friday, is thought to be the main reason that the search for the missing jet has switched from the Strait of Malacca into the open ocean.
The aircraft is believed to have continued due west over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands into the Indian Ocean before apparently turning south before all contact was lost.
Inmarsat, the London based communications satellite operator, told the FT that its network of satellites had received “routine, automated signals” from Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which has been missing since leaving Kuala Lumpur almost a week ago en route for Beijing. The company declined further comment.
But one source briefed on the data said an automatic system on the Boeing 777 “pinged” the satellites five times after what is thought to be the last radar record of the aircraft.
The Malaysian authorities said they believed an aircraft picked up on military radar 200 miles northwest of Penang, a port city on the west of the Malaysia peninsula, was the missing jet.
The transmissions from the jet are thought to have stopped at 8:11am local time last Saturday. Investigators cross-referenced signals from two satellites to establish the aircraft’s heading and direction of travel.
The US is now preparing to start searching an area of the Indian Ocean, helped by the Indian navy. The USS Kidd, a destroyer, has been sent into the Indian Ocean to begin searching for the plane. US officials said that a long-range surveillance plane was also already assisting with the operation, but had not yet detected any signs of debris.
There is an increasing suspicion among the aviation community and investigators that the aircraft could have been hijacked. The various communications systems on the jet appear to have been deliberately shut down, including the transponder which gives details identifying the aircraft, its speed, altitude and heading.
The hijackers of the 9/11 aircraft acted in the same way. The transmission of secondary data from the aircraft – which allows engineers on the ground to monitor the condition of its major systems, such as its engines, via a broadcast system known as Acars – also ceased.
But an automatic system attached to Acars kept running and sent the signals to the satellite. Malaysian Airlines had not subscribed to the satellite service, which meant no data were transferred.