By Anshuman Daga and Mark Hosenball
KUALA LUMPUR/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Satellites picked up faint electronic pulses from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 after it went missing on Saturday, but the signals gave no information about where the stray jet was heading and little else about its fate, two sources close to the investigation said on Thursday.
But the "pings" indicated its maintenance troubleshooting systems were switched on and ready to communicate with satellites, showing the aircraft, with 239 people on board, was at least capable of communicating after losing touch with air traffic controllers.
The system transmits such pings about once an hour, according to the sources, who said five or six were heard. However, the pings alone are not proof that the plane was in the air or on the ground, the sources said.
An international search for the 777, which left Kuala Lumpur early Saturday bound for Beijing, involves at least a dozen countries. Ships and aircraft are now combing a vast area that has been widened to cover the Gulf of Thailand, the Andaman Sea and on both sides of the Malay Peninsula.
The United States, which has sent ships and planes, said the search area may soon expand into the Indian Ocean, consistent with the theory that the plane may have detoured to the west about an hour after take-off from the Malaysian capital.
"It's my understanding that based on some new information that's not necessarily conclusive - but new information - an additional search area may be opened in the Indian Ocean," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters in Washington.
India's defence ministry has already ordered the deployment of ships, aircraft and helicopters from the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands, 1,190 km (740 miles) east of Chennai, at the juncture of the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
The Indian armed forces will hold a meeting on Thursday to decide how to coordinate their search efforts with other countries that are participating, a senior command officer said.
An Indian P8I Poseidon surveillance plane was sent to the Andaman islands on Thursday, ready to join the search once cleared, the head of India's Andaman and Nicobar air force command, Air Marshal P.K Roy, said on Thursday.
The U.S. Navy was sending an advanced P-8A Poseidon to help search the Strait of Malacca, separating the Malay Peninsula from the Indonesian Island of Sumatra. It had already deployed a Navy P-3 Orion aircraft to those waters.
U.S. defence officials later told Reuters that the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer, USS Kidd, was en route to Strait of Malacca, answering a request from the Malaysian government. The Kidd had been searching the areas south of the Gulf of Thailand, along with the destroyer USS Pinckney.
LITTLE FRESH LIGHT
The new information about signals heard by satellites shed little light on the mystery of what happened to the plane, whether it was a technical failure, a hijacking or another kind of incident on board.
While the troubleshooting systems were functioning, no data links were opened, the sources said, because the companies involved had not subscribed to that level of service from the satellite operator, the sources said.
Boeing Co, which made the missing 777 airliner, and Rolls-Royce, which supplied its Trent engines, declined to comment.
Earlier Malaysian officials denied reports that the aircraft had continued to send technical data and said there was no evidence that it flew for hours after losing contact with air traffic controllers early Saturday.
The Wall Street Journal had reported that U.S. aviation investigators and national security officials believed the Boeing 777 flew for a total of five hours, based on data automatically downloaded and sent to the ground from its engines as part of a standard monitoring program.
Malaysian authorities have said the last civilian contact occurred as the Boeing 777-200ER flew north into the Gulf of Thailand. They said military radar sightings indicated the plane may have turned sharply to the west and crossed the Malay Peninsula toward the Andaman Sea.
It is one of the most baffling mysteries in the history of modern aviation - there has been no trace of the plane since nor any sign of wreckage despite a search by the navies and military aircraft of over a dozen countries across Southeast Asia.
"It's extraordinary that with all the (satellite and telecommunication) technology that we've got that an aircraft can disappear like this," Tony Tyler, the head of the International Air Transport Association that links over 90 percent of the world's airlines, told reporters in London.
On the sixth day of the search, planes scanned an area of sea where Chinese satellite images had shown what could be debris but found no sign of the airliner.
Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told a news conference the images were provided accidentally, saying the Chinese government neither authorised nor endorsed putting them on a website. "The image is not confirmed to be connected to the plane," he said.
It was the latest in a series of contradictory reports, adding to the confusion and agony of the relatives of the passengers, about two-thirds of whom were Chinese.
As frustration mounted over the failure to find any trace of the plane, China heaped pressure on Malaysia to improve coordination in the search.
Premier Li Keqiang, speaking at a news conference in Beijing, demanded that the "relevant party" step up coordination while China's civil aviation chief said he wanted a "smoother" flow of information from Malaysia, which has come under heavy criticism for its handling of the disaster.
Indonesia and Thailand have said their militaries detected no sign of any unusual aircraft in their airspace.
Malaysian police have said they were investigating whether any passengers or crew on the plane had personal or psychological problems that might shed light on the mystery, along with the possibility of a hijacking, sabotage or mechanical failure.
Two of the passengers on board were discovered by investigators to have false passports, but they were apparently seeking to emigrate illegally to the West.
The Boeing 777 has one of the best safety records of any commercial aircraft in service. Its only previous fatal crash came on July 6 last year when Asiana Airlines Flight 214 struck a seawall with its undercarriage on landing in San Francisco, killing three people.
(Additional reporting by Niluksi Koswanage, Siva Govindasamy, Yantoultra Ngui and Al Zaquan Amer Hamzah in Kuala Lumpur, Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Mai Nguyen, Ho Binh Minh and Martin Petty in Hanoi, Tim Hepher in Paris, Mark Hosenball and Andrea Shalal in Washington, and Brenda Goh in London; Writing by David Storey; Editing by Frank McGurty)