After four months, the search for flight MH370, the Malaysian Airliner that vanished more than six months ago, is continuing. During that time crews have been mapping the ocean floor in the search zone that lies about 1,100 miles off the western coast of Australia.
The actual 23,000 square mile search zone lies along the “seventh arc,” an area of ocean where investigators theorize the aircraft ran out of fuel, crashing into the ocean. Using transmission signals between the plane and a satellite, officials estimated the impact zone.
Three ships have been contracted for a year to search for the airliner. The first ship, the GO Phoenix, will spend 12 days searching before returning to port to re-supply. Video cameras and jet fuel sensors will be the primary tools used to search for the MH370 wreckage.
The vessels will drag sonar devices about 330 feet above the ocean floor. These devices, called towfish, can also detect jet fuel and will be able to operate at the exceptional depths encountered. The Indian Ocean is four miles deep in some places. Should the sensors pick up anything of interest, crews will attach a video camera to the towfish for further analysis.
Cautious optimism is being expressed that the plane will eventually be found. Australian Transport Safety Bureau Chief, Martin Dolan, leading the search effort feels confident that the remains of MH370 lie along the seventh arc. It is estimated that the defined search areas will take about a year to complete.
111,000 square kilometers of ocean floor have been mapped to date. Existing data for the ocean floor in that area was at a low resolution and acquiring an accurate topographical map was crucial when towing devices close to the seabed. While the search is continuing south of the seventh arc, the Dutch surveying company Fugro is continuing to map the ocean floor.
The more southern search zone was identified by a failed attempt to call the plane by satellite phone once radar screens lost its image. That failed call suggests that MH370 turned south earlier than first suspected. While investigators were familiar with the phone calls, it has taken this long to develop a method to properly analyze the data. Officials are, however, confident that the plane flew on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and disappeared beneath the ocean.
Should the search prove successful, thorough mapping and photographing of the debris field will take about a month to complete before salvaging operations can begin. Much of the recovery is dependent of the conditions of the debris field and topography.
If the search is unsuccessful, it is up to the Malaysian and Australian governments to decide what resources and funding to allocate for future MH370 search endeavors. Australia has currently allocated AUS $60 million for mapping and searching operations. The Malaysian government is expected to match that amount.
As the search for the missing plane continues in the Indian Ocean, officials are cautiously optimistic. Their best estimates have the Malaysian Airliner entering the ocean south of the seventh arc. The fact that the GO Phoenix has been contracted to search for the plane for up to 12 months shows there is a lot of supposition involved in defining the search area. It is expected, however, that flight MH370 will eventually be found.
By Hans Benes
Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy – License