After 500 days of mystery, MH370 answers could come soon

Updated 4:24 PM EDT, Wed August 5, 2015
In this photo dated Wednesday, July 29, 2015, French police officers inspect a piece of debris from a plane in Saint-Andre, Reunion Island. Air safety investigators, one of them a Boeing investigator, have identified the component as a "flaperon" from the trailing edge of a Boeing 777 wing, a U.S. official said. Flight 370, which disappeared March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board, is the only 777 known to be missing. (AP Photo/Lucas Marie)
In this photo dated Wednesday, July 29, 2015, French police officers inspect a piece of debris from a plane in Saint-Andre, Reunion Island. Air safety investigators, one of them a Boeing investigator, have identified the component as a "flaperon" from the trailing edge of a Boeing 777 wing, a U.S. official said. Flight 370, which disappeared March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board, is the only 777 known to be missing. (AP Photo/Lucas Marie)
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In this handout image provided by the U.S. Navy, The Bluefin 21, Artemis autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) is hoisted back on board the Australian Defence Vessel Ocean Shield after successful buoyancy testing April 1, 2014 in the Indian Ocean. Joint Task Force 658 is currently supporting Operation Southern Indian Ocean, searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. The airliner disappeared on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew on board and is suspected to have crashed into the southern Indian Ocean. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter D. Blair/U.S. Navy via Getty
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Able Seaman Marine Technician Trent Goodman keeps lookout onboard HMAS SUCCESS whilst the ship is deployed in search of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. *** Local Caption *** Joint Task Force 658 has been established by the ADF to coordinate supporting military forces engaged in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. Under the name Operation SOUTHERN INDIAN OCEAN, ADF assets from the Royal Australian Navy and Royal Australian Air Force have joined the search for debris, recovery and investigation of the missing flight.
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BEIJING, CHINA - AUGUST 07: Chinese relatives of passengers missing on Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 cry as they kneel in front of the media outside the Malaysian Embassy during a protest by relatives on August 7, 2015 in Beijing, China. France expanded its search for debris off Reunion Island Friday a day after Malaysia's prime minister announced that a piece of wing discovered last week is from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370 which vanished last year. Officials and experts from other countries including the United States and Australia have been more cautious, saying that more investigating needs to be done. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
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Story highlights

Source says Boeing engineers have seen a part number in photos of the component

A sophisticated lab in France could identify what plane the part comes from, and what happened, source says

The part "most certainly belongs to a Boeing 777," Malaysian official says

(CNN) —  

Debris believed to be from a Boeing 777 – and possibly missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 – is headed to France, where investigators hope sophisticated technology will help unravel a mystery nearly a year and a half in the making.

The debris – which investigators seem increasingly confident came from a Boeing 777 – was discovered this week on the remote Indian Ocean island of Reunion.

Work to conclusively identify the piece of wreckage and determine if it is from the missing plane will begin Wednesday, French prosecutors said.

Boeing said it is sending experts to France. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board also will travel to take part in the probe, a source with knowledge of the investigation told CNN.

A preliminary report could come as early as next week, a source close to the French investigation told CNN. The report won’t give “an exact sequence of events,” the source said, but will at least eliminate some scenarios.

Meanwhile, anguished friends and relatives of MH370 passengers, who had clung to the thin hope that perhaps their loved ones would some day be found alive, are coming to grips with the growing realization that’s not likely to happen.

Experts answer your questions

“What kept me going until now was repeatedly imaging the moment I would reunite with my daughter,” said Beijing resident Zhang Meiling, whose only child was aboard the flight.

For MH370 families, hope hangs by a thread after Reunion discovery

If confirmed, the piece of wreckage would be the first bit of physical evidence recovered from MH370. It could help resolve some questions about the fate of the aircraft, but many others remain unanswered.

Here’s where things stand:

THE DEBRIS

The part turned up this week on the shore of Reunion, an island in the western Indian Ocean, more than 2,000 miles from the search zone.

“I thought perhaps it’s from a plane crash so I said don’t touch it anymore,” said Johnny Begue, who was the first to spot the debris. “Because if it’s a plane crash, then people have died and you have to [have] respect for them.”

To experts, it looks a lot like a flaperon, part of an aircraft’s wing that helps control its roll and speed.

Boeing investigators said they are confident the debris is from a 777 aircraft, according to a source close to the investigation.

From Boeing

The source said Boeing investigators are basing their view on photos that have been analyzed and a stenciled number that corresponds to a 777 component.

Another source told CNN that Boeing engineers have seen a part number – 10-60754-1133 – in photos of the component. A Boeing parts supplier confirmed the number was on a seal associated with the Boeing 777, the source said.

Images of the debris appear to match schematic drawings for the right-wing flaperon from a 777.

Malaysia’s deputy minister of transport, Abdul Aziz Kaprawi, also weighed in, saying the part “most certainly belongs to a Boeing 777,” but he didn’t draw any more direct connection between the part and the missing flight. A French aeronautics investigator familiar with the ongoing investigation agreed.

Dolan said last week that he is “increasingly confident but not yet certain” that the debris is from MH370.

But, he said, “the only 777 aircraft that we’re aware of in the Indian Ocean that could have led to this part floating is MH370.”

New debris, which washed ashore Thursday and appears to resemble remnants of a suitcase, is also part of the investigation, Reunion Island police officials confirmed to CNN. That debris will be taken to be analyzed at a police lab in Pontoise, outside the French capital, the Paris prosecutor’s office said in a statement Friday. The prosecutor’s office did not provide any timing for the analysis.

But Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said officials were less sure that “the bag has anything to do with MH370” than they are about the plane component.

Teams in Reunion have continued to search the stretch of coast where the debris was found.

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THE INVESTIGATION

The French General Directorate of Armament, which is analyzing the debris, has sophisticated equipment and expertise to quickly identify the plane the debris belongs to and what happened to it.

That analysis will begin Wednesday, the Paris prosecutor’s office said.

Malaysia, which is responsible for the overall investigation into MH370’s disappearance, is sending teams of aviation officials to Toulouse, where investigators will analyze it, and Reunion, the country’s Prime Minister said Thursday.

It’s unclear when the identification process will be completed and its results announced.

“I understand that the photographs that are available are of such detail that it may be possible to make an identification without further physical examination,” Truss said Friday.

If debris is from missing plane, what’s next?

THE THEORIES

The photographs have enabled aviation experts to weigh in one of the biggest aviation mysteries of recent years.

One group of independent observers said that the damage to the flaperon should give authorities a good indication that the piece came off while the plane was still in the air.

The group, led by American Mobile Satellite Corp. co-founder Mike Exner, points to the small amount of damage to the front of the flaperon and the ragged horizontal tear across the back.

The rear damage could have been caused if the airliner had its flaperon down as it went into the ocean, some members of Exner’s group wrote in a preliminary assessment after looking at photos and videos of the component.

But the lack of damage to the front makes it more likely the plane was in a high-speed, steep, spiral descent and the part fluttered until it broke off, the group said.

But an aircraft component specialist who spoke to CNN disagreed.

The lack of damage to the front section “tells me that the component could still have likely been back in its original position inside the wing itself,” said Michael Kenney, senior vice president of Universal Asset Management, which provides plane components to airlines.

9 aviation mysteries highlight long history of disappearances

THE DISAPPEARANCE

Authorities have so far been unable to establish why Flight 370 flew sharply off its route from Kuala Lumpur and disappeared.

A preliminary assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies suggested someone in the cockpit deliberately caused the aircraft’s movements before it vanished.

The U.S. intelligence assessment was largely focused on the multiple course changes the aircraft made after it deviated from its scheduled Kuala Lumpur-to-Beijing route. Analysts determined that, absent any other evidence, it’s most likely someone in the cockpit deliberately moved the aircraft to specific waypoints, crossing Indonesian territory and eventually toward the south Indian Ocean.

Malaysian investigators haven’t reported finding any evidence that casts suspicion on the pilots.

The airliner’s crew has been the focus of attention since the mysterious disappearance, but no proof has emerged indicating they intended to destroy the plane. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies from numerous countries examined the plane’s manifest of crew and passengers and found no significant information to suggest anyone on board posed an obvious threat.