PERTH, Australia – A robotic submarine headed back down into the depths of the Indian Ocean today to scour the seafloor for any trace of the missing Malaysian jet one month after the search began off Australia’s west coast, as data from the sub’s previous missions turned up no evidence of the plane.
It was the fifth attempt by the Bluefin-21 unmanned sub to find wreckage or the black boxes from Flight 370 in a distant patch of seabed. The sub, which can create sonar maps of the ocean bottom, has now covered 42 square miles of the silt-covered seabed, but has thus far found nothing, the search coordination center said. The sub’s last mission hit a record depth beyond its recommended diving parameters, which can potentially cause risk to the equipment, the U.S. 7th Fleet said in a statement. However, it is being closely monitored.
Officials are desperate to find some physical evidence that they are searching in the right spot for the Boeing 777, which vanished March 8 with 239 people on board on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing.
The Bluefin is searching a remote stretch of ocean floor about 15,000 feet deep in an area where sound-locating equipment picked up a series of underwater sounds consistent with an airplane’s black box, but it went down to 15,404 feet during mission four. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said officials are “very confident” the sounds came from the Malaysian jet’s cockpit voice and flight data recorders, but finding the devices in such deep water is an incredibly difficult task.
Radar and satellite data show the plane flew far off-course and would have run out of fuel in a remote section of the Indian Ocean. Planes and ships have been scouring the ocean surface for a month, to no avail.
Today, 11 planes and 12 ships were continuing the surface search across about 20,000 square miles of ocean. The U.S. alone has flown 35 missions, racking up 319 hours of flight time over nearly 450,000 nautical miles of ocean, according to the 7th Fleet.
Angus Houston, who is heading up the search effort, said earlier this week that the hunt for floating debris would be ending within days, because it is unlikely that anything will be found. But the search coordination center said the effort would continue into next week, more than six weeks after the plane vanished.
Malaysia’s defense minister, Hishamuddin Hussein, confirmed that the search would continue through the Easter weekend, but acknowledged that officials would have to rethink their strategy at some point if nothing is found.