The U.S. Navy's Bluefin-21 and its "side scan" sonar has become
the focal point of the search some 2,000 km (1,200 miles) west of
the Australian city of Perth, where authorities believe Malaysia
Airlines flight MH370 hit the ocean after disappearing from radars
on March 8 with 239 people on board.
The search has centered on a city-sized area where a series of
"pings" led authorities to believe the plane's black box may be
located. But after more than a week without a signal, and almost two
weeks past the black box battery's life expectancy, authorities have
turned to the Bluefin-21.
But the Bluefin-21's searches of the largely unmapped ocean floor
have been frustrated by an automatic safety mechanism which sends it
to the surface when it exceeds a depth of 4.5 km (14,763 feet). Its
searches have yet to find any sign of the plane.
On Friday, as searchers waited for the remote-control submarine to
return from its fifth mission, the U.S. Navy said the Bluefin-21 had
gone to a record depth of 4,695 meters (15,403 feet) in its previous
"This is the first time the Bluefin-21 has descended to this depth,"
U.S. Navy spokesman Lieutenant Junior Grade Daniel S. Marciniak said
in a statement.
"Diving to such depths does carry with it some residual risk to the
equipment and this is being carefully monitored by the U.S. Navy and
(Bluefin-21 owner) Phoenix International."
He also confirmed that the Bluefin-21's search area had been reduced
based on further analysis of the initial signals believed to have
come from the plane's black box. Authorities have said the U.S.
Navy's previous estimate, that the Bluefin-21's hunt may take two
months, was also wrong and the drone was focusing on a "reduced and
more focused underwater search area".
NO END IN SIGHT
On Monday, the search coordinator, retired Air Chief Marshal Angus
Houston, said the air and surface search for debris would likely end
in three days as the operation shifted its focus to the ocean floor.
But on Friday, the Perth-based Joint Agency Coordination Centre said
that up to 11 military aircraft and 12 ships would join in the
search across 52,000 square km (32 square miles) of ocean. Marciniak
said U.S. patrol aircraft "continue to support the search effort".
[to top of second column]
That would suggest searchers, under pressure from the families of
those on board the plane that was on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to
Beijing when it disappeared, still hold some hope of finding
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was quoted by the Wall Street
Journal on Wednesday as saying that "we believe that (underwater)
search will be completed within a week or so. If we don't find
wreckage, we stop, we regroup, we reconsider".
Asked by Reuters to clarify Abbott's comments to the newspaper, his
office said he was only suggesting that authorities may change the
area being searched by the Bluefin-21 drone, not that the search
would be called off.
Malaysia's defence minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, vowed that the
search would continue even if there could be a pause to regroup and
reconsider the best area to scour.
"The search will always continue. It's just a matter of approach,"
he told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur.
He said Abbott remained in close contact with Malaysian Prime
Minister Najib Razak and the two had spoken on Thursday to discuss
(Additional reporting by Al-Zaquan Amer Hamzah in Kuala Lumpur;
editing by Michael Perry and Robert Birsel)
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