Authorities expanded their search for the missing Malaysia Airlines MH 370 plane westward toward India on Thursday, saying it may have flown for several hours after its last contact with the ground.
That scenario would make finding the Malaysia Airlines MH 370 Boeing 777 a vastly more difficult task, and raises the possibility that searchers have been looking in the wrong place for the plane and its 239 passengers and crew since it disappeared early Saturday en route to Beijing.
In the latest in a series of false leads in the hunt, search planes were sent Thursday to search an area off the southern tip of Vietnam where Chinese satellite images published on a Chinese government website reportedly showed three suspected floating objects.
They saw only ocean.
''There is nothing. We went there, there is nothing,'' said acting Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.
Compounding the frustration, he later said the Chinese Embassy had notified the government that the images were released by mistake and did not show any debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
The plane left Kuala Lumpur and was flying northeast across the Gulf of Thailand and into the South China Sea when it dropped off civilian radar without any indication it was having any technical problems.
An international search effort is methodically sweeping parts of the South China Sea. A roughly similar-sized hunt is also being conducted to the west in the Strait of Malacca because of military radar sightings that might indicate the plane headed that way after its last contact, passing over the Malay Peninsula. The total area is around 35,800 square miles (92,600 square kilometers), or about the size of Portugal.
The Wall Street Journal newspaper quoted U.S. investigators on Thursday as saying they suspected the plane remained in the air for about four hours after its last confirmed contact, citing data from the plane's engines that are automatically transmitted to the ground as part of a routine maintenance program.
Hishammuddin said the government had contacted Boeing and Rolls Royce, the engine manufacturer, and both said the last engine data was received at 1:07 a.m., around 23 minutes before the plane's transponders, which identify it to commercial radar and nearby planes, stopped working.
But asked if it were possible that the plane kept flying for several hours, Hishammuddin said: ''Of course, we can't rule anything out. This is why we have extended the search.