Authorities are investigating whether “unidentified material” washed up on the southwest coast of Australia has any link to missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, officials said on Wednesday.
“Western Australia Police have attended a report of material washed ashore 10 kilometres east of Augusta and have secured the material,” Australia’s Joint Agency Co-ordination Centre said in a statement.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) is examining photographs of the material to determine whether it has any links to the search for the missing jet, it added.
The bureau has provided photographs of the material to the Malaysian investigation team.
“It’s sufficiently interesting for us to take a look at the photographs,” ATSB Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan told broadcaster CNN, describing the object as appearing to be sheet metal with rivets.
But he added a note of caution. “The more we look at it, the less excited we get.”
The Boeing 777 with 239 people aboard was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 when it mysteriously diverted.
It is thought to have crashed into the remote Indian Ocean off Western Australia, where a huge search is underway.
Earlier this month, an oceanographer told the South China Morning Post that currents and prevailing winds would likely push any floating debris towards Australia's vast west coast .
Dr Alec Duncan, an oceanographer from Curtin University in Perth, said: "Prevailing winds are southwesterly, which will push material in the general direction of the coast. However, the search area is a long way offshore, so this could take months."
He said it was also possible that debris could wash up on one of the islands that dot the Indian Ocean.
Oceanographer Erik van Sebille said that if the plane had crashed near Australia there "would be a good chance" something washed up.
The development comes as Australia said it may use more powerful sonar equipment that can delve deeper beneath the Indian Ocean in the hunt for the missing jet.
The search co-ordination centre said on Wednesday a robotic submarine, the US Navy’s Bluefin 21, had so far covered more than 80 per cent of the 310-square-kilometre seabed search zone off the Australian west coast, creating a three-dimensional sonar map of the ocean floor. Nothing of interest had been found.
The 4.5-kilometre deep search area is a circle 20 kilometres wide around an area where sonar equipment picked up a signal on April 8 consistent with a plane’s black boxes. But the batteries powering those signals are now dead.
Defence Minister David Johnston said Australia was consulting with Malaysia, China and the United States on the next phase of the search for the plane that went missing on March 8, which is likely to be announced next week.